Palestinians in Gaza Defy Hamas to Support Abbas Drive for UN Recognition

As Khamis Nammour ladles steaming fava-bean stew onto plates of hummus at his Gaza City restaurant, he keeps an eye on the television screen for news about the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition.

“It’s a good beginning,” said Nammour, 36, stirring the Egyptian stew known as fuul. “We have been waiting a long time to have our own state and we deserve it.”

His support for achieving Palestinian statehood through the UN isn’t shared by Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement. Its leaders officially frown on the campaign, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from the West Bank, home to 2.6 million people versus 1.6 million in the Gaza Strip. Eighty-six percent of Gazans favor the Abbas push, a survey by a Palestinian research center found, more than in the West Bank.

After the UN recognition effort was formally announced in May, Hamas leaders condemned Abbas, known locally as Abu Mazen, for failing to consult with them. They said his willingness to accept a state that includes only the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem showed weakness and that Israel should be taken over by Palestinians as well.

When Abbas, 76, speaks to the UN General Assembly today, he won’t mention that he represents barely two-thirds of Palestinians, or that the leadership of the other one-third is pledged to the destruction of Israel.

Divided Leadership

That bifurcation weakens his position at home, said Basem Zbeidi, a political scientist at the West Bank’s Birzeit University near Ramallah. When he returns, Abbas would be well advised to pay more attention to Gaza and complete the reconciliation with Hamas, Zbeidi said.

“Building the whole approach on the premise of unity would make him stronger and allow him to speak with authority on behalf of all Palestinians,” he said.

Still, Abbas’s Sept. 21 decision not to press for an immediate vote by the 15-member Security Council on making Palestine the 194th member of the UN hasn’t reduced Gazans’ enthusiasm for the push.

“I never liked Abu Mazen and his band, but when they decided to go to the UN and ask for an independent Palestinian state, I did really support them from the bottom of my heart,” said Asmaa Abu Tahoon, a 30-year-old housewife, in an interview yesterday. “This is the demand of the vast majority of our people. I don’t think Abbas would refrain from the vote on the bid after all that he achieved.”

Staying Away

Abbas’s Fatah movement briefly shared power when Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. Then clashes with Hamas forced the Palestinian leader to flee his Gaza home in 2007 and members of his secular Fatah party were tossed from office buildings to their deaths. He hasn’t been back.

In the West Bank, thousands packed city squares in Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron this week to celebrate the UN campaign. Flags, banners and portraits of Abbas were plastered on buildings and youngsters danced the Debka folk dance to euphoric crowds.

In Gaza, Hamas hasn’t explicitly banned street rallies, though few have materialized.

“I don’t believe the Palestinian people are so enthusiastic that they want to go to demonstrations,” Yousef Rezca, a political adviser to top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, said in an interview.

While pollsters found that support for the UN bid was 86 percent in Gaza, it was 82 percent in the West Bank, according to the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

Higher in Gaza

Fifty percent of those surveyed expect the UN effort to succeed, while 43 percent believe it will fail, according to the Sept. 19 poll of 1,200 people, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.,

“They appreciate what Abbas is doing, even in Gaza,” said Khalil Shikaki, the poll’s director. “Statehood is important to people and they’ve shown a level of patience that indicates they don’t expect to get everything they want immediately.”

Hamas, an Islamic movement that is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, took control of Gaza after Abbas fled and his Fatah deputies were purged. Until that point Haniyeh had been prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, governing both the West Bank and Gaza with Abbas.

After four years of schism the two sides signed a reconciliation agreement May 4 that calls for elections to create a joint government within a year. Abbas sidelined the push while he moved ahead with the UN campaign, aware of threats from the U.S. Congress to withdraw more than $500 million in annual funding if the tie-up with Hamas goes through.

More Poverty

With its population crammed into a sandy narrow territory bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza has a poverty rate of 33 percent, compared with 18 percent in the West Bank, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Still, economic growth is accelerating to an estimated 17 percent from 15.2 percent in 2010, which reflects the easing in Israeli trade restrictions. In the West Bank, growth is expected to slow to 4 percent in 2011 from 7.6 percent last year, the IMF said. Gaza unemployment fell to an estimated 25.6 percent in the first half of 2011 from 39.3 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank.

Gaza has been rebuilding after the territory was physically devastated by the 22-day offensive Israel opened in 2008 with the announced aim of stopping Palestinian militants from firing rockets over the border. Thousands of rockets hit Israel over the previous eight years before the military action, which left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

While Hamas has strengthened its grip over Gaza since its break with Fatah, Abbas loyalists have found the leaders more tolerant than expected on the statehood campaign.

“Hamas’s opposition to the UN bid is pretty soft,” said Talal Oukal, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “They’re not really trying to do anything to stop it and their criticism hasn’t been very strong.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza City through the Tel Aviv newsroom at sramadan@bloomberg.net; Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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