Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Mood on the Street

Outside of Gaza, no one is monitoring the Israeli incursion more closely than the Palestinians of the West Bank and Hezbollah. While elements of both populations have expressed outrage, it has been a measured outrage complicated by political, security and economic realities. The Times reports on the mood in Gaza:

Over the past week, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has been delivering furious speeches here almost every day against the Israeli assault on Gaza, and blaming Egypt and other Arab countries for their passivity. But Mr. Nasrallah has not ordered his own powerful militia into action. No missiles have been fired at Israel from southern Lebanon. And for all the anxious talk in recent days about the possible opening of a second front on the Lebanese border, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will attack unless Hamas’s situation becomes desperate, analysts say.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, Hezbollah still believes that its ally Hamas will triumph. Second, it cannot risk drawing Lebanon into another devastating conflict like the one in 2006. Hezbollah is still politically vulnerable at home. “They don’t want to bring down the wrath of the Israeli Air Force,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The community and the country are not up for another war just two years after the last one.”

After the 2006 war, Mr. Nasrallah claimed victory over Israel but also delivered a kind of apology to the Lebanese, saying he would not have ordered the cross-border raid that precipitated the 2006 conflict if he had known that Israel would respond with a 34-day juggernaut, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and parts of the country in ruins. Since then, Hezbollah has gained important new powers in Lebanese government, and its alliance is widely expected to win a majority in parliamentary elections this year, a major step. Starting a conflict could risk all that, angering the Lebanese people and “reviving the whole debate about Hezbollah’s weapons,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a policy analyst and author who has written about Hezbollah.

...Hezbollah’s leaders, who are famously secretive, appear to be sanguine about the outcome in Gaza. “We are not pessimistic about the future of the fighting,” said Ali Fayyad, a former Hezbollah official and the director of a research institute here affiliated with Hezbollah. “We consider that the resistance is strong enough, and we think Israelis are making the same mistake they made in the July 2006 war.” Hezbollah is well aware of Hamas’s abilities, having worked with Iran to train and prepare the Gaza-based movement for this conflict, Mr. Salem and other analysts say. The idea was to arm Hamas so that it could survive in battle long enough to force Israel and Arab states to negotiate terms with it, a process that would ultimately bolster its power and credibility — along with those of its allies Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. No second front is needed to fulfill those goals.

So far, Hezbollah’s role has been purely rhetorical. Mr. Nasrallah has deplored Israel’s military assault and, in an unprecedented step, lashed out at Egypt for not opening its border with Gaza to allow military and humanitarian supplies through. Analysts say he hopes to create a popular movement in Egypt and elsewhere that would force the Egyptian government to capitulate, easing pressure on Hamas.

Meanwhile, the mood in the West Bank is strikingly similar but for different reasons:

Fewer than 100 people showed up on Monday in the busy center of Nablus for a demonstration in solidarity with the suffering Palestinians of Gaza. There were a few Palestinian flags, and some posters that featured bombs with Jewish stars and dripping blood and demanded, “Where is the conscience of the world?” But when an organizer asked passers-by to join the rally, only a handful responded. The lack of interest was not, for certain, lack of support for Hamas. Fury is rising here over the war in Gaza, as are support for Hamas and anger with the Palestinian Authority in this city, which has long been the beating heart of opposition to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Many want the authority and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, to do more to criticize Israel.

But a complicated internal struggle is also playing out here in the West Bank, separate geographically and governed by the Palestinian Authority, not, like Gaza, by Hamas. Fatah leaders are growing deeply worried over popular reaction and support for its rival, Hamas, to the point of crushing recent demonstrations. There is also, after so many years of struggle, of Palestinian against Israeli and of Palestinian against Palestinian, no small degree of weariness with yet another deadly round. Even with the war in Gaza, there is no sign of a third intifada, or uprising, despite Hamas’s call for one. “The people are tired,” said Jamal Fayez, who runs a modest restaurant in the city center. “They’re tired, and they’re poor. They’re tired of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and they’re tired from trying to earn bread to eat.”

…The impact of the Fatah-Hamas struggle is strong, Mr. Shikaki [one of the most highly regarded Palestinian pollsters, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, and a sometime adviser to Mr. Abbas] said, with Fatah having lost legislative elections to Hamas in January 2006 and having lost control of Gaza to Hamas in a short but fierce civil war in June 2007. “There is anger with the Israelis over Gaza, but also anger with Hamas, and for the first time, Israel is waging war with a faction of the Palestinian people that has been in a bloody conflict with another Palestinian faction,” Mr. Shikaki said. “There is a sense of frustration with both Hamas and Abu Mazen,” as Mr. Abbas is known.

Palestinians have conflicting sentiments, Mr. Shikaki said. There is sympathy for those under attack, respect for those who fight and the need to show support for the victims of Israel. “All this is affecting Abu Mazen and Fatah,” he said, “and if Hamas can declare some kind of victory in Gaza, this support for Hamas will remain, and Hamas will be able to regain the initiative in the West Bank that they lost after the civil war in Gaza.”

On the West Bank, he said, people do not blame Hamas now, as Mr. Abbas did. “This is not the moment for blame,” Mr. Shikaki said, “which is why Abu Mazen saying that Hamas is responsible for the Israeli attacks did not go down well.” But he said that much would depend, in both Israeli and Palestinian politics, on the outcome of the conflict and on whether Hamas or Israel was perceived to have won.

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