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Hamas government struggles to survive

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

GAZA CITY – The Islamist group Hamas, in control of the Palestinian Authority for less than a month, is already in deeper trouble than critics had predicted: diplomatically isolated, profoundly in debt and in a state of increasing internal disarray.Hardship is beginning to take hold among the families of tens of thousands of civil servants who have gone unpaid because of the dramatic drop in foreign aid. Angry gunmen, many from the rival Fatah faction that Hamas defeated in January parliamentary elections, roam the streets of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”The question is really where they can go from here,” Palestinian analyst Talal Okal said. “It looks like a dead end – but one that could drag down everyone else along with them.”Still uncertain is whether ordinary Palestinians would prefer to see a flawed and struggling Hamas government stay afloat rather than witness the fulfillment of what they see as Israeli and U.S. wishes to bring about its downfall.”Our help is from Allah, not from America and the West,” said Hamed abu Harbid, a 27-year-old government employee who is scrambling to support his elderly parents as well as his wife and two daughters in the absence of a paycheck. “A collapse of the Hamas government wouldn’t mean the alternative was any better.”Since the swearing-in of its prime minister and Cabinet last month, Hamas has repeatedly and defiantly insisted that it can get by without the direct Western aid that was cut off in response to its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. But a hoped-for infusion of large-scale aid from the Arab and Muslim world has been slow to materialize, amounting to sums that would cover less than a month’s outlays.In the meantime, neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt, both of which have peace treaties with Israel, are pressing Hamas to moderate its views. Jordan snubbed Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, waving him off a scheduled visit and accusing Hamas of maintaining arms caches in its territory, which Hamas denied.Egypt, according to Israeli news reports, is urging Hamas to adopt some formula that will amount to acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, most likely an Arab League declaration dating back to 2002 that includes recognition of a Jewish state within pre-1967 armistice lines. But Hamas has resisted, and Egypt is said to be trying now to broker talks between moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.Rivalries have steadily sharpened in recent weeks between Hamas and Abbas, who was elected separately a year earlier than Hamas and wields powers of his own as head of the executive branch. The two sides have repeatedly sought to limit each other’s authority and cancel each other’s decrees.Within Hamas itself, it has become clear there is little in the way of an established chain of authority. Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister who is leader of Hamas’ pragmatist faction, has found himself pre-empted again and again by the group’s hard-line exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal.Abbas too is plagued by a chronic lack of clout, despite the desire of both Israel and the United States to bolster his standing. His personal prestige among Palestinians sagged badly during his first year in office, when he was unable to win significant concessions from Israel.Hamas Cabinet ministers, meanwhile, are discovering the many ways in which they can be undermined by subordinates loyal to Fatah, who still make up the bulk of employees in government agencies. Several Hamas ministers are said to have come nearly to blows with aides who refused to carry out their bidding, or did so half-heartedly.Many of the more than 140,000 Palestinian government workers who went unpaid this month are Fatah loyalists, so some of their anger over the cutoff of salaries is largely directed at Hamas.Earlier this month, a defiant Haniyeh told a rally that Palestinians would live if necessary on “salt, olives and hyssop” – a Mediterranean herb – rather than being starved into submission by the international aid cutoff. Days later, a cartoon in the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam showed a man trying to use his bank card at an automatic-teller machine, with salt, olives and hyssop on offer instead of money.But Israel and the United States come in for much of the blame as well from Palestinians. Even those who do not support Hamas are furious over Israel’s withholding of about $55 million in monthly tax revenues that it is supposed to collect on the Palestinians’ behalf.When Fatah ran the government, it was not unusual for the Palestinian Authority to issue paychecks weeks late, so the scenario thus far is not so different from that era, with the families of most unpaid government workers borrowing and pinching pennies and making do. A full-blown humanitarian crisis could be months away, but a poll last week by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion indicated that nearly 60 percent of Palestinians believed that the foreign aid cutoff would be a spark for violence.


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