Palestinians see no way out

news1_.jpgWorld Bank warns economic crisis much more alarming as 3 killed in Hamas-Fateh fighting

GAZA CITY — With Hamas and the West locked in a standoff, the Palestinians are hurtling towards an abyss of poverty and chaos, and there seems to be no way to pull back.

On the eve of a meeting of top Mideast mediators, the World Bank warned Monday that a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza is rapidly approaching, and deadly street clashes erupted in Gaza.

Still, Hamas refuses to moderate its violent ideology, and the world is not calling off its crippling economic boycott. Moderate President Mahmoud Abbas is caught in the middle, trying to keep Hamas in check, but not powerful enough to force the fighters out of office or call new elections.

There’s little time to find a solution. The Hamas-led government is broke because of the international aid cutoff, increasingly unable to provide basic services. Some 165,000 government workers, who provide for one-third of the Palestinians, have not been paid for the past two months, and savings are dwindling quickly.

“We are expecting the situation to explode at any time,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Yet Hamas dismisses Western demands that it recognise Israel and renounce violence.

Hamas fears an about-face would hurt it politically by making it look weak and unprincipled, said pollster Nader Said of the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University. The group’s exiled leaders, beholden to hardline states Iran and Syria, have also crushed any compromise ideas floated by Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.

For now, most Palestinians blame the West and Abbas for the crisis, and believe the new democratically elected government is being treated unfairly by the international community, said the pollster.

With public opinion on its side, Hamas is standing tough. “Even if we fail [as a government], we have nothing to lose,” said Abu Zuhri. He said pressure on Hamas would only intensify the Arab world’s anger against the West.

In this climate, Abbas has to tread carefully.

Even though he is the leader of the Fateh Party, Hamas’ main political rival, Abbas has also tried to portray himself as being above the political fray.

In this dual role as party chief and president, he has stripped the Hamas government of some powers, particularly over the security forces, but has also travelled the world with an appeal to donor nations to restore aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Under the Palestinians’ presidential system, Abbas could fire the Hamas government, but a replacement team would require the approval of the Hamas-controlled parliament.

Hamas has rejected the idea of forming a “technocrat” government devoid of Hamas politicians, and it’s unlikely the West would fall for such a charade.

Abbas’ other option, calling early elections, would be a huge gamble.

Many Palestinians would likely balk at returning to the polls so soon after the January legislative vote. They have been upset with what they consider the hypocrisy of the West, which they say preached democracy to them, then refused to accept the Palestinian election results.

There’s a good chance Hamas would simply be reelected, said Moheeb Nawaty, author of a book on Hamas. Fateh, the longtime ruling party, is in disarray and still unpopular, many voters had backed Hamas to punish Fateh for arrogance and widespread government corruption.

Hamas would not step aside easily, Nawaty added. “The scenario that Hamas is going to give up, that’s not going to happen,” he said.

The survival of the Hamas government depends largely on how much foreign aid, if any, it is able to funnel into the Palestinian areas.

Hamas leaders have collected tens of millions of dollars in the Arab and Muslim world to counter the Western sanctions. However, the money can’t be transferred to Gaza because of US pressure on banks afraid of running afoul of Washington’s anti-terrorism regulations.

On Tuesday, the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — is to meet in New York to discuss policy towards Hamas, and there are signs of a rift between Washington and its three Quartet partners.

The European Union has proposed sending money directly to Abbas to be spent on hospitals, schools and humanitarian needs. While the US says it wants to keep sending humanitarian assistance, it has been cool to the European proposal. Critics say even payments bypassing the Hamas government would ease pressure on the Islamic fighters.

The World Bank, which will attend Tuesday’s meeting, warned that the economic crisis is much more alarming than it had initially predicted. In March, the bank forecast that poverty in the Palestinian areas would rise to 67 per cent by the end of 2006, up from 44 per cent last year.

“These projections now appear too rosy,” the bank said in a report Monday.

Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, alleged that Washington’s ultimate goal is to bring down the Hamas government. If that happens, he warned, the entire region will plunge into turmoil.

Fateh leaders said Hamas has been stirring up confrontations to deflect attention from its economic crisis. On Monday, a Hamas man and two armed Fateh loyalists were killed in Gaza gunbattles, the deadliest internal fighting since Hamas took office in late March.

Ghassan Khatib, a planning minister in the previous Fateh-led government, said the West needs to be more patient. Pragmatists in Hamas could win the upper hand if aid is restored and Hamas is given a chance to run the government. Deepening poverty, in turn, “would make Palestinians more militant,” he said.

“If the Hamas government fails, it’s not good for Abu Mazen [Abbas], and the public will blame the president,” he said.

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