- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

TEL AVIV — Recent rising turmoil in the Gaza Strip has bolstered public sympathy for Hamas at the expense of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, according to a recent survey by a prominent Palestinian pollster.

If an election were held between Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Mr. Abbas, the results would be too close to call, compared with a 19-point cushion enjoyed by the Palestinian president in December, according the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Mr. Haniyeh’s popularity is at its highest point since Hamas’ landslide parliamentary victory two years ago, while Mr. Abbas and Fatah have been hurt by their perceived inability to bring change.

Hamas has been helped by Israel’s military incursion in Gaza, which left more than 100 Palestinians dead, and its decision to breach a border wall with Egypt, allowing Gazans to stock up on goods in short supply because of Israel’s economic blockade. Mr. Abbas has been hurt by the failure of U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel to ease hardship for Palestinians.

“I don’t dispute the results. I’m worried about it,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“Abbas was elected on a mandate to deliver peace, to deliver economic prosperity, and on the ground, nothing has changed. People see the settlement construction continuing.”

Indeed, the results are an indication that U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and Mr. Abbas are hurting rather than bolstering the Palestinian leader.

Some 47 percent of respondents said they’d vote for Mr. Haniyeh, while 46 percent indicated Mr. Abbas, a statistical dead heat because of a three percentage point margin of error.

The poll was conducted over three days last week among 1,270 adults.

The survey results reflect a “major” shift in Hamas’ favor over the last three months. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they would vote for Hamas in a parliamentary election, up from 31 percent just three months ago. Support for Fatah dropped to 42 percent from 49 percent.

Those results suggest Israel may need to rethink its strategy of stirring up anti-Hamas sentiment in Gaza through an economic blockade. Israeli leaders have suggested that the military sanctions in Gaza would prompt the population to abandon Hamas.

The unprecedented casualty count in Gaza spurred sympathy for the Islamic militant rulers in the coastal strip. At the same time, the ability of Gaza militants to widen the range of their rocket attacks with equipment smuggled over the border with Egypt has won Hamas praise. Meanwhile, stagnation in peace talks combined with little progress by Israel in lifting movement restrictions on Palestinians hurt Mr. Abbas’ standing..

Developments such as the opening of the Gaza-Egyptian border “managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks,” read a statement released by the Ramallah-based policy and survey research center.

“They also presented Palestinian President Abbas and his Fatah faction as impotent, unable to change the bitter reality in the West Bank or ending Israeli occupation through diplomacy.”

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