Palestinians Face New Power Struggle

The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip sets the stage for an intensified power struggle between the ruling Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the militants of the Islamic group Hamas.

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Now that the Israeli settlers are gone, the Palestinian Authority will soon take over in all of the Gaza Strip, and it says it is intent on building a new society. President Mahmoud Abbas says all factions are welcome in that society, including the militant Islamist group Hamas. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, there's a growing power struggle between Hamas and President Abbas' Fatah movement.

PETER KENYON reporting:

As Israeli soldiers moved on to the West Bank settlement evacuations last night, thousands of Hamas followers gathered in Gaza City for a march celebrating the eviction of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Crowd: (Foreign language spoken in unison)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Crowd: (Foreign language spoken in unison)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Crowd: (Foreign language spoken in unison)

KENYON: As usual, the crowd was large, young and fervent. Hamas supporters say unlike President Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, Hamas doesn't need to bus in crowds to populate its rallies. The demonstration was a reminder that as Abbas seeks to bring order and elections to Gaza, he faces a resurgent Islamist movement claiming that it was attacks against Israelis that drove them from Gaza, not any negotiations or compromises.

Mr. MAHMOUD ZAHAR (Senior Hamas Official): (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Earlier in the day senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar answered phone calls and spoke to reporters in the barren garden of his newly rebuilt house. The old one was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed his son and wounded his wife. Zahar maintains the same hard-line views that have kept Hamas outside of any peace talks. When asked if there'll be a third intifada in the West Bank, he replies that there's no need to start a new struggle.

Mr. ZAHAR: Why a third intifada while it is--the second is running?

KENYON: But there's a new politically savvy edge to some of his comments that reflects Hamas' new interest in expanding its influence in Palestinian society. Parliamentary elections are set for January, and Zahar says Hamas expects to do well, as it did in the most recent municipal voting. Although he refuses to declare that Hamas is evolving from a resistance movement to a political party, he says the movement has been planning for the day it wins a majority of seats in the legislature and is ready to participate in politics even if it doesn't.

Mr. ZAHAR: And if we will be a minority, it will be a very effective minority and a strong minority that prevents any violation, any diversion from the national interest.

KENYON: The idea of Hamas as a kind of loyal opposition to the Palestinian Authority is appealing to many Palestinians, even those who have no desire to see Gaza or the West Bank turned into an Islamic theocracy.

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KENYON: At a downtown Gaza flower and plant shop, 42-year-old Monir Abu Shaowish(ph) talks about his problems exporting cut flowers from Gaza because of Israeli restrictions. He says personally he would vote for Fatah candidates in the coming elections because Fatah wants to make peace with Israel. But he thinks Hamas has an important role to play internally, keeping the Fatah politicians honest.

Mr. MONIR ABU SHAOWISH (Gaza): (Through Translator) The presence of Hamas on the ground ...(unintelligible) Fatah to clean their hands because they are competing with Hamas. But for Fatah ...(unintelligible) lay alone on the ground without having any competitor, they will be corrupt.

KENYON: Shaowish's view was echoed by other Palestinians, who seem to grasp what psychologist Iyad Saraj calls the most important transformation Palestinians must now face: from victims waiting for deliverance to politically active citizens helping to shape their own future. Saraj says everything depends on Abbas' ability to enact reforms that give Palestinians the sense that they're equal citizens, a sense he says they never had under Yasser Arafat, who let his own guard elite run the show.

Mr. IYAD SARAJ (Psychologist): Without this sense, it would be complete failure. Everything would be a complete failure because if you have that established by the rule of law, then you will have a sense of security, you will have a sense of belonging to the state, not to the tribe or the family. And this is a dramatic change in our culture.

KENYON: But cultural changes take time, and Saraj worries that despite the prevailing rhetoric about national unity, relations between Fatah and Hamas could degenerate into violence in the not-too-distance future. He says Fatah is divided and pregnant with trouble, and Hamas is hungry for power.

One key question is how much progress Abbas can make in the coming months to improve living standards and economic prospects for Gazans. Another is whether Hamas will abide by its commitment to a cease-fire until year's end. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Gaza.

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