Casualties of War: Palestinian Moderates

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Susana Vera / Reuters

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

The biggest political loser in the battle of wills between Israel and Hamas that continues to rage in Gaza is the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. Even as Western and Arab diplomats take care to assign the increasingly marginalized Abbas a role in negotiations over a truce to end the fighting that has claimed more than 700 lives, he is facing mounting fury from Palestinians, not only in Gaza but also in his West Bank stronghold. When the blistering sermons and Friday prayers were done, several thousand inhabitants of Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's West Bank seat of power, gathered in the city's central square for what organizers had billed as a demonstration of Palestinian unity against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. But Palestinian unity is wearing pretty thin.

Trouble began when one demonstrator unveiled a Hamas flag, and was immediately set upon by baton-wielding Palestinian police. Although Hamas was voted in as the ruling party in the Palestinian legislature in 2006, and its militias violently ejected security forces controlled by President Abbas from Gaza the following year, the West Bank remains in the hands of its more moderate rival, Fatah, and the U.S.-trained security services answerable to President Abbas. Abbas' presidential term of office ended Friday, although his supporters claim that by their political math, he can still serve another year. Hamas is unlikely to press the issue while it fights to survive in Gaza, but the single most important factor keeping Abbas in power may be the presence of the Israeli military throughout the West Bank, keeping the Islamists on the back foot. (See images of grief in the current conflict)

"What are you doing?" an onlooker shouted, demanding that the police stop beating a flag-waving Hamas supporter. "It's only a flag. We are all one people!" But soon packs of casually dressed security officers — many of them wearing Fatah baseball caps — surged through the crowd, harassing almost anyone who complained, and beating those suspected of supporting Hamas, oblivious to the irony that their makeshift plastic whips were fabricated from cheap Palestinian flags. "Animals!" someone shouted at the officers. "Collaborators! Jews!" screamed an elderly woman at the police.

Similar scenes — which have been occurring almost every day in every major city in the the West Bank since fighting in Gaza began almost two weeks ago — are the most visible example of the political blowback created by the Gaza violence. While Israeli and U.S. officals have suggested that pounding Hamas in Gaza would strengthen Fatah and those Palestinian moderates willing to engage in the peace process, the opposite is occurring on the ground. The rolling demonstrations in the West Bank, which have drawn supporters of both Hamas and Fatah, have become expressions of popular anger not just at Israel and America, but also at President Abbas and his security apparatus.

The problem facing Abbas is that despite years of being photographed shaking hands with Israeli leaders and huddling with U.S. Secretaries of State, he has proven powerless to ease the Israeli security constraints on daily life in the West Bank, or to stop the growth of Israeli settlements and reverse the pauperization of the Palestinian people. Now, it's also become clear that he is unwilling or unable to get his American and Israeli partners to stop the assault on Gaza. "What did we ever get from the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority?" asked Ahmed, a 35-year-old teacher in Ramallah, who then chronicled the phases of the peace process. "Oslo is gone with the wind. Annapolis is gone with the wind. The truce is gone with the wind. What's the result? The Israelis have swallowed the West Bank and now they are eating Gaza."

West Bank anger at Abbas has been deepened by his security forces using some of the same bare-knuckle tactics traditionally used by the Israeli security forces — riot police, tear gas, detentions — against Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority security forces have been deployed as a buffer to keep demonstrators away from Israeli security forces and settlements, but on the streets they're also seen as a show of force against any dissent against Abbas. "The police and security forces are lions when it comes to confronting us," said Ibrahim, a demonstrator in Hebron. "But when it comes to confronting the Israelis, they are rabbits."

The mounting anger on the streets of the West Bank clouds the political prospects of President Abbas — and the Bush Administration's strategy over the past three years of trying to boost his status while isolating Hamas. In the unlikely event that Israel manages to defeat Hamas in Gaza, there will be no one left to govern the territory. Gazans are unlikely to welcome Abbas as a liberator on the back of the Israeli tanks. Instead, the conflict is more likely to leave Hamas in the driving seat, starting with a cease-fire process that requires its participation, whereas that of Abbas is purely symbolic. But even within Fatah, the Gaza campaign has brought anger at Abbas' cooperation with the U.S. and Israel to a boiling point, making it far from certain that the President would win the nomination of his own party in the next Palestinian presidential election. "Those in authority must understand that they have no authority while their people are under full occupation," independent Palestinian lawmaker and human rights campaigner Mustapha Barghouti told TIME at the Ramallah demonstration, before he was hustled away by PA security men. "It's shameful. The people cannot live with two occupations at once."

With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Hebron