Abbas has long been uncomfortable with his country's main Islamist movement. In addition to its fervid attempts to alter the Palestinian cultural landscape, Hamas obstinately refuses to recognize Israel, even if the latter were to withdraw to the 1967 borders. While Abbas envisages full diplomatic relations between an independent Palestine and its neighbor, all Hamas is willing to offer Israel is a truce that can be renewed indefinitely. Yet Hamas' popularity has soared in recent years, with Fatah and other nationalist factions steadily losing ground. When Hamas swept legislative elections last year, a chastened Abbas duly allowed democracy to take its course and did not stand in the way of Hamas' ascension to power. The results - Islamization at home, isolation abroad, and the evaporation of prospects for renewed negotiations with Israel - only exacerbated Palestine's myriad social and political problems.
The collapse of the Hamas-Fatah unity government and the subsequent decision by Hamas to seize control of Gaza proved to be the last straw. Rather than merely trying to recover lost ground - only to return to the stalemate that has characterized the Hamas-Fatah balance of power - Abbas has made a strategic decision to reclaim Palestine for moderate Palestinians. Having tired of playing catch-up to the Islamists, traditional PLO factions, together with civil society groups, might now take the initiative and redirect nascent Palestine toward a more liberal future.....In his speech - remarkable for its comprehensiveness - Abbas spoke of Hamas' increasing control of schools and mosques. Significantly, he also addressed fears concerning the future of Palestinian Christians, accusing Hamas of being behind the ransacking of a Roman Catholic convent and school in Gaza. The latter charge remains unproven and was denied by Hamas officials, though Monsignor Manuel Musallam, the head of Gaza's Roman Catholic community, had initially speculated that the perpetrators were members of Hamas.It is imperative that the ideological differences between Hamas and Abbas' Palestine Authority remain at the forefront of the debate. Abbas' societal vision includes a place for Islamists - so long as they do not resort to violence and coercion - while Hamas' conception of Palestinian society includes increased restrictions on women, Christians, secularists, advocates of normalization with Israel, and anyone with un-Islamic views.It remains to be seen which vision will triumph, though all indications are that the West Bank is headed for reintegration into the international community while Gaza is poised to sink deeper into isolation. Abbas wants to alleviate the woes of poverty-stricken Gazans - who should not become pawns in this struggle - but opposes any dialogue with the "murderers" and "putschists" of Hamas, who seek to establish an "emirate of darkness and backwardness" in Gaza, as Abbas put it.
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