Even with Hamas seizing control of the Gaza Strip this week in a full-scale and bloody assault on Fatah rivals, the Israeli government is not writing the more moderate Palestinian president off yet.
“Abu Mazen is very relevant because we are in the middle of this battle and he still has great power,” Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry’s chief strategist, told Israel Radio on Thursday, using the popular name of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“He is the legitimate figure that the world recognizes. If the world pins any hopes on the Palestinian leadership, then it is on Abu Mazen.”
After months of occasional skirmishes and botched reconciliation efforts, it appeared this week as though the long-anticipated Palestinian civil war had arrived.
The Islamist Hamas, the dominant partner in the Palestinian Authority government, declared victory with scores of Gazans dead in the streets, hundreds in hospitals and Western-sponsored Fatah militiamen fleeing their stronghold.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Iranian-backed Hamas, saw a “second liberation of the Gaza Strip” after Israel’s withdrawal of troops and settlers in 2005.
“This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators,” he told Reuters on Thursday, referring to Fatah.
Though Hamas was outnumbered by an estimated 4 to 1, it still managed to overtake Fatah in the brutal power struggle — a testament perhaps to Hamas’ greater motivation and popularity in the conservative and impoverished Gaza.
That spells a possible political division of the Palestinian Authority, given Fatah’s relative dominance in the West Bank, which is 20 miles away from Gaza at their closest points.
Gilad said Israel still would not engage Hamas.
“From a political aspect, it’s important not to be tempted into the illusion that there is any chance of dialogue with Hamas as long as it does not change its avowed goals, in which it believes that Israel has no right to exist and must be fought,” he said.
The prospect of a “Hamastan” in Gaza prompted Israel to hint this week that its peace efforts with Abbas could be at risk and that it could be up to foreign powers to intervene.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the West should give “serious consideration” to posting peacekeepers in southern Gaza to prevent weapons reaching Hamas from Egypt. It was a dramatic departure from Israel’s long-held reluctance to see foreign troops in the territories.
Israel also has stepped-up military preparations for a possible anti-Hamas sweep in Gaza should the group press ahead with cross-border rocket salvos. For months, Israeli residents of Sderot and other border areas have been subject to rocket attacks.
But Gilad warned of the limitations of the military option.
“We could go in, and I assume the IDF has a great many operational capabilties,” he said. “But you also have to ask: What happens on the day after?”
The fall of Gaza was a rebuke to Abbas, who had tried to bridge doctrinal differences with Hamas by coming together to form a coalition government this year.
But the coalition did nothing to dilute Hamas’ hatred of the Jewish state, or to soften a Western embargo aimed at isolating the Palestinian Authority until its administration changed diplomatic direction.
Abbas was widely expected to respond to the crisis by dissolving the coalition government, which would likely finalize a split among the Palestinians.
“The Palestinian cause is facing its most enormous catastrophe in many decades,” Abbas aide Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio. “The Palestinian people are witnessing the separation of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.”
Erekat accused Israel of preventing arms and other aid from reaching Fatah forces in Gaza.
The United States, other Western powers and some moderate Arab states had paid for the training and arming of Palestinian Authority security forces loyal to Fatah.
Fatah loyalists in the West Bank have been rounding up Hamas members and threatening them with death in reprisal for the Gaza fighting.