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Abbas under pressure from all sides

Palestinian leader appears weak, isolated; faces tests

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, attends a sod-turning ceremony at Abu Khadra Islamic hospital in Gaza City Monday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, attends a sod-turning ceremony at Abu Khadra Islamic hospital in Gaza City Monday.
Adel Hana, Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is having trouble imposing order in Gaza, and he is cut off from his people by a wall of bodyguards. His government faces a no-confidence vote in parliament, and his main rival, Hamas, is parading its private army in the streets.

A week after Israel left Gaza, Abbas appears weak and isolated, drawing criticism from politicians from his own party, from Israel and from ordinary Palestinians. His defenders say he faces an impossible task and needs more time, and point out the Palestinians now have a moderate, sober-minded leader after decades of erratic rule by Yasser Arafat.

However, parliamentary elections are only four months away, Hamas is breathing down his neck and concrete achievements seem distant. It will take months before Abbas can deliver on promises of housing and jobs.

Abbas faces several immediate dilemmas.

He is under growing pressure to open the Gaza-Egypt border and secure freedom of movement for Gazans. But that could jeopardize future peace talks and Gaza's economic future if it is done without the consent of Israel, which could retaliate by clamping down at other border crossings.

The international community wants Abbas to move against militants, but that would interfere with his plan to bring Hamas — the largest Islamic militant group — into the fold and thus defuse its threat to his political survival. Israel has complicated matters by threatening to impede the parliamentary election if Hamas participates.

Abbas' most obvious problem is his isolation from his people.

Since the last Israeli soldier drove out of the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12, Abbas has shied away from public celebrations, including one last week on the ruins of the largest Jewish settlement. He sent an aide while Hamas dispatched its top leader, Mahmoud Zahar.

Abbas travels through Gaza in a speeding 20-car convoy surrounded by dozens of guards. Since Israeli troops withdrew, he has addressed his nation only once — and that was via television.

At one point last week, as thousands were clambering into Egypt and militants were brandishing weapons throughout Gaza, Abbas stunned his countrymen by saying Gaza was under "complete control."

"I know that we have a president just from the news, but in our life we feel nothing about him," said Gaza City resident Salem Iskik. "He is living in an isolated island in Gaza, with no way to see him or talk to him and when he talks to us he uses the TV screens like he is addressing foreigners."

In a stormy session of parliament Monday, lawmakers had harsh words for the Palestinian leader and his Cabinet. Much of the tough talk came from members of Abbas' ruling Fatah party.

"There is no real presence of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza," said Fatah lawmaker Nabil Amr, an Abbas ally. Another Fatah lawmaker, Ghassan Shakaa, said: "The security situation is in a very bad state. Our national project is in danger."

Palestinian officials say the criticism of Abbas is unfair. They note he has outlined a detailed plan to control Gaza and has begun incorporating Fatah gunmen into the security services. They also argue Israel moved up its withdrawal date without warning, weakening the government and spurring chaos.

On the morning Israel left, thousands of Palestinians overwhelmed Palestinian and Egyptian security forces and crossed into Egypt. Guns and drugs made it over as well — into Gaza.

It took several days before Abbas' security forces could bring the border under control.

Abbas' defenders say it is unrealistic to expect the Palestinian Authority to end Gaza's chaos overnight.

"This place is full of weapons, full of militias, factions, armed groups, everyone now wants a share of the cake ... and this is something that takes time. This is not something that can be solved quickly," said Palestinian planning minister Ghassan Khatib.

Security is the most important item on Abbas' agenda because without it, detailed arrangements with Israel to allow goods and people to move freely in and out of Gaza — the lifeline of the territory's economy — will be endangered, and that in turn will jeopardize Abbas' rule.

And if Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, fails to restrain militants and end the chaos, there will likely be little pressure on Israel for further withdrawals in the West Bank — with Israeli hard-liners pointing to Gaza as justification to avoid future concessions.

Many Palestinians contend Israeli policies have weakened Abbas, including the reluctance to allow free movement for the Palestinians.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel hopes "Abu Mazen will succeed in creating good government in Gaza, a situation with the rule of law, not ... the rule of armed groups."

"Our assessment is that the jury is still out," Regev said.

In Gaza today, gunmen kidnap foreigners to blackmail the government and gangs rule the streets. With weak, ill-equipped, badly trained and often competing security forces, Abbas says he wants to persuade the militants to put down their weapons and join the political process. So far, they have thumbed their noses at him.

In January, Hamas will participate in parliamentary elections for the first time, and the group is expected to make a strong showing. It has held several parades in Gaza in the past week, attracting tens of thousands of supporters.

Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said time is running out for Abbas.

"It's time for intervention," she said. "It's time for the political leadership to assert itself. Otherwise the armed groups will fill the vacuum.