gaza iaf strike 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
It's hard to see how the Israeli decision to declare the Gaza Strip "hostile territory" could undermine Hamas. In fact, the move is likely to backfire, rallying more Palestinians around Hamas and other radical groups.
Hamas is not lacking in funds and weapons. Just last Friday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced that some 40,000 unemployed laborers would each receive $100. And earlier this week, he announced that thousands of students in the Gaza Strip would be exempted from school fees.
Depriving Palestinians of water and electricity will not turn them against Hamas. Instead, they will vent their frustration and despair against Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction.
That's why Abbas and his top aides were quick to condemn the decision to designate the Strip a hostile entity, employing the same language used by Hamas leaders: "A declaration of war" and "crime against humanity," they called it.
The move is seen by Abbas and his entourage as a form of "collective punishment" that will only weaken their standing among their people.
For the past three months, Abbas has been trying to draw a clear line between Hamas and the rest of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In this context, Abbas has repeatedly demanded during meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel lift various restrictions imposed on the population and avoid harming civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas's hope was that such gestures would have some kind of a moderating effect on the Palestinians there, who might eventually turn against Hamas.
There is no doubt that Abbas's reaction to the latest Israeli decision would have been much more restrained had Israel directed it exclusively against Hamas. As one of his aides said on Wednesday, "The problem is Hamas, not the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. This decision plays into the hands of Hamas because it makes them appear as the scapegoat."
When Israel temporarily cut off the power supply to large parts of the Strip several weeks ago, many Palestinians saw the move as part of a Fatah-Israeli "conspiracy" to bring down the Hamas government. Abbas and Fatah were openly accused of colluding with Israel - an allegation that was echoed on many influential Arab satellite TV stations, first and foremost Al-Jazeera.
Abbas and his government are already under severe criticism from a large number of Palestinians because of the ongoing crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank by both Fatah-controlled PA security forces and the IDF.
In the past 48 hours, Hamas spokesmen have been openly accusing Abbas's security forces of helping Israel in its security operation in a refugee camp near Nablus. The operation is directed against Hamas and other terrorist groups that, according to the IDF, have been planning a suicide attack inside Israel.
"The Israeli government is doing everything to embarrass us and make us look bad in the eyes of our people," complained a senior Abbas adviser. "We understand Israel's security concerns, but this is not the right way to deal with the problem. I'm afraid the punitive measures will only strengthen Hamas."
The timing of the Israeli decision - on the eve of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Ramallah - is also problematic for Abbas, who is expected to demand that Washington exert pressure on Israel to refrain from measures that could further alienate the Palestinian public. A meeting with Rice the day after the US-backed Israeli decision will make Abbas appear as if he's collaborating with the Israelis and Americans against his own people.
Finally, the Israeli decision is likely to spoil US efforts to convene an international peace conference in November. Abbas and most of the Arab countries have already made it clear that they won't go to the US-sponsored gathering unless they first receive assurances that all their demands will be met - including a prior agreement with Israel on all the "core" issues: Jerusalem, borders and refugees.
Now Abbas has even a better excuse to stay away from the conference. One of his aides quoted him as saying, "How can I go and talk peace with Israel while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are living without water and electricity? My people will never support me or any deal I bring back."â€¢