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Gaza conflict undermines Abbas

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cut a lonely figure while his Islamist Hamas rivals in the Gaza Strip have battled Israel, gaining kudos in the West Bank and de facto Arab recognition.

Hamas leaders received Arab and Turkish foreign ministers in Gaza on Tuesday, following similar trips by Egypt's prime minister and Tunisia's foreign minister, as well as one by the emir of Qatar last month before the eruption of a week-old conflict that now seems to be heading into a ceasefire.

“These diplomatic gains strengthen Hamas's argument that it is an integral part of the future of the region, while the Palestinian Authority is part of the past,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, an academic and a former spokesman for Abbas's PA.

Western leaders still shun Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas's Fatah movement in 2007 after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections a year earlier.

Yet while a visit to Ramallah, near Jerusalem, by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday will acknowledge Abbas's formal status, it can hardly disguise his near absence from the diplomacy that is going in to halting the war in Gaza.

“It simply accentuates how irrelevant Abu Mazen is in regard to the Gaza Strip,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Israel Radio, using Abbas's familiar name.

Mediation efforts have focused on Egypt, whose new Islamist leaders are seeking a ceasefire, juggling their sympathy for Hamas with the practical need not to upset Cairo's peace treaty with Israel or alienate the United States, its main aid donor.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, unwelcome in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, is now in favor in Cairo, where he demanded that Israel make the first step if it wanted a Gaza truce. “Whoever started the war must end it,” he told a news conference on Monday.

President Barack Obama, while shunning Hamas leaders deemed terrorists by Washington, spoke three times to Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi in the day leading to Tuesday's truce move, the White House said. He appeared not to have called Abbas at all.

“Radicalizing effect”

The spotlight on Hamas's unequal military struggle with Israel has also upstaged a diplomatic initiative that Abbas plans to take to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

And demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza have broken out in Abbas's West Bank fiefdom in the last few days, in which two people were reported killed, testing the PA's security grip.

“The Gaza confrontation is having a radicalizing effect in the West Bank,” Khatib said. “It is embarrassing the PA, which is having difficulty in preventing the growing protests. If these expand, it will be at the expense of law and order.”

Anger at Israel's assault on Gaza, directed at rockets fired from the densely populated enclave, does not mean pro-Hamas fervor is sweeping the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where economic discontent has already hurt Abbas's waning popularity.

The mood in Ramallah was subdued on Tuesday, with no pop music blaring from shops or young men's cars, as the Gaza death toll climbed beyond 115. Three Israelis have also been killed.

“People don't feel increasing support for Hamas per se, but when they heard Hamas rockets had landed in Tel Aviv, they felt someone was finally doing something to challenge the Israelis,” said Ahmad Sliman, 24, at a Ramallah coffee shop where he works.

“It gave people hope that we are not completely defenseless.”

Gaza militants have fired at least four rockets towards Tel Aviv since the start of the seven-day conflict, but the missiles have either missed their target or been shot down by the Iron Dome interceptor system, the Israeli military said.

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