Gazans watch with pride as Hamas strikes Israel

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 17 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Even as Hamas installations were being pounded, the movement — an offshoot of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood — scored diplomatic gains after years of painful isolation. Arab states in the region, particularly Egypt and Tunisia where Arab Spring uprisings swept the Brotherhood to power, are under popular pressure at home to support embattled Gazans.

The Egyptian prime minister visited Friday, followed by the Tunisian foreign minister Saturday. The Arab League said it is sending a contingent of foreign ministers to Gaza in coming days. In a nod to Abbas, the group is to include West Bank-based foreign minister Riad Malki.

Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas, said the influx of foreign visitors shows the rules of regional diplomacy have changed. During the last Israel-Hamas war, a pro-Western regime deeply suspicious of Hamas was in charge in Egypt, traditionally the regional mediator between Israel and the Arab world. The recent visits show that "the Arab and Islamic nations are with us ... and this will give a very strong message and signal to the international community and even to Israel," he said.

The Gaza offensive came just two weeks before Abbas planned to seek U.N. recognition of "Palestine" — consisting of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — as a non-member observer state. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

Such recognition, likely to be approved by a majority of U.N. General Assembly members, would be largely symbolic but also protect the borders of a future Palestine against Israeli land claims through expansion of Jewish settlements.

However, the U.N. plan is now being overshadowed by the Gaza fighting.

"With the gravity and dramatic nature of the events in Gaza, this U.N. move will appear ... less significant and less attractive," said Ghassan Khatib, until recently a spokesman of Abbas' autonomy government, the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, the Gaza offensive "is making the Palestinian Authority less relevant and politically marginalized," he said.

Israel and the U.S. oppose the U.N. bid, saying it's an attempt to bypass negotiations, a charge Abbas has denied. He complained in a televised speech to Palestinians on Friday that the Gaza offensive is meant to undermine the U.N. recognition quest, but that he would go ahead and submit it on Nov. 29.

The apparent rise in Hamas' popularity also forced Abbas to ease up on his crackdown on the Islamists in the West Bank. On Friday, Abbas' security stood by as hundreds of Hamas activists — raising their movements' green banners — marched in several West Bank towns.

In Gaza, Hamas was basking in its newfound appeal. Government spokesman Taher Nunu claimed, without providing evidence, that the level of popular support for firing rockets at Israel is unprecedented.

The current mood in Gaza can quickly turn on Hamas, especially if fighting drags, the death toll rises or shortages are felt more keenly. But for now, Gazans seem to enjoy the rare feeling of keeping Israel off guard.

"Israel is more powerful, no argument about that," said Gaza City grocer Safwan Darwish, watching a Hamas TV station in his shop. "But this strong state which all Arabs fear found itself under the mercy of fire from Gaza."

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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