In critiquing Hamas, Abbas treads lightly

Hamas could have prevented Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas said Dec. 28. The Palestinian Authority president also called on Hamas to renew its cease-fire with Israel.

“We spoke to them and told them, ‘Please, we ask you not to end the cease-fire. Let it continue,’ ” Abbas said during a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “We want to protect the Gaza Strip. We don’t want it to be destroyed.”

Abbas also called the continuing rocket attacks on Israel “acts of foolishness,” but he did say the airstrikes were a “sweeping Israeli aggression against Gaza.”

Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah said that Abbas’ Fatah Party, which rules the West Bank, was prepared to assume control of Gaza if Israel topples the Hamas regime there.

But Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said that “Israel is not looking for a knockout against Hamas because the costs are too high. The purpose is to eventually return to a cease-fire.”

Some observers are saying the Gaza situation hurts Abbas, increasingly sidelined as a leader even before the violence. The past year of peace talks with Israel has had no visible results. Meanwhile, Hamas has said it will no longer recognize Abbas as president after his four-year term ends this month.

As Abbas did little more than call for restraint, his security forces clamped down on West Bank protests against Israel’s Gaza offensive, for fear they could spin out of control.

“One of the victims [of the Gaza offensive] is President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority,” said Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib.

Ed Abington, a former American diplomat who advises Abbas, also said that Israel’s attacks weaken, not strengthen, the stature of Abbas. “I don’t quite know where the Israelis want to end up,” he said, noting that trying to bomb Hamas into submission only rekindles radicalization.

But Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that if Hamas is weakened by the bombings in Gaza, Abbas’ position could be emboldened. “It’s possible to imagine that he could emerge as some sort of broker who saves Gaza from an Israeli onslaught,” Alterman said.

Yuval Diskin, the director of the Shin Bet security service in Israel, suggested at Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting that his country’s goal is to isolate Hamas.

“The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin was quoted as saying. His remarks were relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

In remarks on television Dec. 29, Abbas echoed those sentiments. “I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire. The ceasefire must continue and not stop in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back. “There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization. For now, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is saying he’s striving for a lesser, temporary objective — to deliver such a blow to Hamas that the Islamic militants will halt rocket attacks on Israel.

Far from being cowed, Hamas leaders have sounded defiant and won’t be easily toppled, even though the strikes have driven them into hiding. Eighteen months after seizing Gaza by force, Hamas is in firm control and commands thousands of armed men. It is unlikely to be brought down by force, short of Israel reoccupying the territory.

Ron Kampeas of JTA and Ibrahim Barzak, Matti Friedman and Karin Laub of the Associated Press contributed to this report.