Mahmoud Abbas is not in the business of doing favors for his bitter rivals in Hamas, which is why the Islamists may have been more taken aback than anyone else at the massive political gift presented to them on Oct. 2 by the Palestinian Authority President. At the instruction of Abbas, the Palestinian delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council withdrew support for moves to pursue war-crimes charges over Israel's January offensive in Gaza, effectively shelving U.N. action on an inquiry led by former international war-crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone that accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. So furious has been the reaction of Palestinians across the political spectrum that the move is being widely seen as the final nail in the President's political coffin with the Palestinians due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections next year, Abbas may no longer be a viable candidate for his Fatah movement.
Abbas' move at the U.N. was widely perceived as a response to pressure from the U.S. and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly warned that his government would not negotiate peace if the Goldstone findings were pursued, insisting that they undermined Israel's "right to defend itself." Some accounts in the region suggested that Washington had prevailed on Abbas to squelch the U.N. probe; others alleged that Abbas had been blackmailed into doing so by Israelis who threatened to release tapes that purportedly show senior Palestinian Authority figures enthusiastically backing the Israeli operation in Gaza, in the hopes that it would "finish Hamas." (Israeli officials dispute that suggestion.) What is clear, however, is that the Goldstone report had been applauded by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where more than 1,300 people died during the three-week offensive that also reduced most of the territory's infrastructure to rubble. And most found it unconscionable that their own government should be seen to be protecting Israel from any consequences of Goldstone's findings.
If Hamas had been unsure of how to act on the Goldstone report, Abbas made it easy for them by his Geneva intervention. The decision spurred a flurry of demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, drawing furious condemnation from leaders of Hamas and Fatah and demands for an inquiry into how it came about. Hamas legislators convened to discuss the issue in Gaza City, with some of the movement's leaders accusing Abbas of treason. "If the Palestinian Legislative Council, which represents the Palestinian people and which is freely elected [and in which Hamas is the ruling party] is against the decision, and if the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] executive committee is against the decision, and if the Fatah central committee is against the decision all political and Islamic factions are against the decision then who made the decision?" Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said during the session. "They the Zionists made the decision. Supporters of the Zionists made the decision."
On Tuesday Hamas police held a Gaza City press conference demanding the arrest of those responsible for putting the Goldstone report on hold at the U.N. And Syria, which backs Hamas, postponed a planned visit to Damascus by Abbas. Hamas has also warned that the U.N. move presents a serious obstacle to the unity deal that it had been expected to sign with Fatah later this month. Indeed, Palestinian public opinion has turned so sharply against Abbas over this issue that Hamas may be tempted to hold off on reconciling with its rivals while its political position is strengthened by the tide of anger over the Geneva intervention.
"This decision revealed the true position of the authorities in Ramallah, which does not represent the Palestinian people but rather the interests of individuals and their foreign agenda," Hamas government spokesman Ayman Taha told TIME.
Gaza human-rights organizations, some of which have been highly critical of Hamas' abuses, were among those most vocally denouncing what was widely seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.
"We worked so hard on [the Goldstone report]," says Mahmoud Abu Rahma, communications director for Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, who says his organization provided the U.N. fact-finding team with hundreds of documents. "We were familiar with attempts by Israel to repress the report and ... we are familiar with the position of the United States, which is more or less in line with Israel ... But [this] came from the Palestinian Authority ... This is not acceptable."
Even before the Goldstone-report fiasco, Hamas was on a roll. It scored fresh popularity points on Oct. 2 by securing the release of 20 Palestinian women from Israeli jails in exchange for a video confirming that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Gaza militants in 2006, is alive. The German- and Egyptian-mediated swap stirred up fresh hope on both sides that an exchange of Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners was close at hand. Prime Minister Haniyeh personally greeted the final prisoner in the swap with flowers, underscoring the political gains to be made on the prisoner-release issue, a primary grievance among Palestinians that Abbas has made little headway on in his years of talking to the Israelis.
Before the prisoner release, some in Gaza warned that Hamas' popularity might be waning and that an early election might not be in the Islamists' interests given the deteriorating economic plight of Gazans. But thanks to Abbas' intervention in Geneva, those calculations may have been dramatically changed.