Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A confident Hamas stares down Abbas, West

By Mehdi Lebouachera
Agence France Presse
20 December 2006

GAZA CITY, Dec 20 2006--With the US entangled in Iraq and Israel still licking its wounds from its war in Lebanon, the ruling Palestinian movement Hamas feels more confident than ever in its showdown with moderate president Mahmud Abbas, analysts and officials say.

A months-long standoff between the radical Islamists and the moderate Abbas spilled over into deadly violence this week after the Palestinian leader called for early elections, a move virulently rejected by Hamas.

Eleven people, including two teenagers caught in crossfire, have been killed in Gaza since Abbas's call on Saturday for early polls.Despite the violence -- and a nine-month freeze on direct Western aid to the Palestinian government imposed after Hamas formed a cabinet -- the Islamists show no sign of caving in to Western demands that they renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to past peace deals."

The changes in the region are beginning to turn in our favor," exiled Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal said in a statement posted on the website of the group's armed wing this week.

"Nobody will force Hamas to change its policies using the siege, the provocations and the chaos," Meshaal said."The American defeat in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon and in Palestine has left an impact on the United States, as we saw with the Baker-Hamilton report," he said.

He was referring to a high-level US panel that urged Washington to jumpstart efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict if it wanted to achieve its goals in the region, including in Iraq."Today, Israel is no longer in the Gaza Strip ... then Israel was defeated in Lebanon and now Israel is unable to quell the intifada," or Palestinian uprising, which began in September 2000.

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya offered a similar analysis after returning last week from a tour of Arab states and Iran.

"There have been developments around us during the past nine months which have traced the holy path towards the future," Haniya said in a speech this week in Gaza City. Haniya pointed out "three important events" that took place during this period: stiff resistance faced by the Israeli army in Lebanon this summer from the Hezbollah militant group, the US embroilment in Iraq and the "resistance and patience of the Palestinian people" in the face of world pressure.

Mouin Rabbani, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, says that part of Hamas's confidence and its doggedness comes from the belief that its ally Iran will eventually emerge as the dominant regional player.

"Hamas thinks its enemies are failing and are in a real crisis. It believes that it has placed itself on the winners' side" together with Iran, Rabbani says.

"It is obvious that since the end of the summer Hamas is more and more confident," he says, adding that "Hamas has managed to receive millions of dollars from Iran and Gulf

"With its confidence high -- and with opinion polls showing only slight differences in ratings between it and Fatah -- Hamas has no intention of backing down, or to agreeing to the early elections proposed by Abbas.

"This call is unconstitutional and risks throwing us 10 years back. We do not accept, we reject this call and insist on the necessity to respect the choice of the
Palestinian people," Haniya said in a televised address Tuesday.Says Rabbani: "I don't think Abbas has the political power to really hold these elections. Hamas has
the power to prevent them or render their results null."

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