Despondent Palestinians face future with unease

GAZA — Fear of an escalating power struggle between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas added to the gloom on Monday for Palestinians marking a Muslim holiday that would normally be a festival of joy.

The two sides are pointed towards a possible showdown after the Eid Al Fitr holiday, which falls at the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan and is one of the two biggest celebrations in the Muslim calendar.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders are considering whether to expand an offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at recovering a captured soldier and stopping cross-border rocket fire.

Eid Al Fitr holiday began on Monday and ends on Wednesday.

“We are afraid that things are headed for the worse,” said Samir Ali, 31, a Gaza City taxi driver. “The situation has been worsened by the internal fighting. I wish I could know what they are fighting for.” Tension has grown sharply between Hamas, the governing Islamist group, and moderate President Abbas’ Fateh in the weeks since talks on forming a coalition collapsed. Internal violence left at least 20 dead and stirred talk of civil war.

Despite appeals for calm, fears are rife of bloodshed that would further undermine Palestinian hopes of statehood.

Hamas has ruled out even implicit recognition of Israel, which it seeks to destroy, under any deal with Abbas, who demands that the group soften its line as a way to ease a US-led aid embargo crippling the Palestinian Authority.

Though contacts on a unity government may be resumed after the holiday, there is no sign they would make more progress now.

“It is dangerous to think about failure,” said Gaza-based political analyst Hani Habib. “Failure will lead to the continuation of the current political crisis and as a result there may be a security and military crisis.”

Decision time

The next move is in the hands of Abbas.

Possibilities under consideration include dismissing Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to effectively oust the government, declaring a state of emergency or setting a referendum on whether to hold new elections.

The first two options would be politically difficult because of the parliamentary majority Hamas won in January when it defeated Fateh. Hamas would still shape any new government and could limit any state of emergency to 30 days.

Any clear attempt to bring down the elected Hamas government could also fire up the battle between Hamas’ forces and Fateh loyalists. Both sides have been building up their might and arsenals for a possible confrontation.

A referendum could in theory lead to new elections, but those could be a dangerous gamble for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, because Hamas might win again — and in so doing put his own position in jeopardy. He was elected directly in 2005.

Chances of a repeat Hamas win are strengthened by the fact that Fateh has done little in terms of political reform since being voted out of office by Palestinians who saw it as tainted by corruption and riven by internal squabbles.

Any expansion of the Israeli operation in Gaza might also complicate the situation and boost Hamas at the expense of Abbas. Seven Palestinians, at least three of them fighters, were killed there on Monday.

“Abu Mazen is leaving the situation until the last minute, a few days after the Eid,” said one aide to Abbas, who did not want to be named. “I expect that the only option is to sack the government and declare a state of emergency … after that he calls for a referendum on an early election.” While many Palestinians fear a violent confrontation between Hamas and Fateh, there is also widespread frustration with the economic crisis since Hamas took over and faced Western aid cuts to force it to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

The government’s failure to pay full salaries to its workers for months has rippled through the entire economy.

“I have two small boys and I cannot buy new clothes for them. I can buy no sweets and no good food … Eid will be the saddest day I have ever lived,” said 28-year-old government worker Ahmed Rezik in Gaza.

“Both Abu Mazen or Haniyeh have to find a solution, otherwise, let’s elect others.”

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