ANALYSIS: Hamas Losing Grip on Gaza, Fatah Gaining Support

Israeli intelligence sources: Hamas military wing leader Ahmed al-Ja'abari is now real man in charge in Strip.

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The Hamas gunmen who sought to disperse the crowd at the rally Monday in Gaza marking the third anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat did not use rubber-coated bullets or tear gas; they simply opened fire on the crowd, leaving seven dead and dozens injured. In so doing, they added to the pressure under which the Islamic organization is laboring five months after it took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah forces.

Some people in the West Bank Monday were recalling the "million-man rally" held by the anti-Syrian faction in Beirut after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, and the wave of protest that brought about the ejection of the Syrian army from Lebanon. Hamas will not give up Gaza so easily - they have nowhere to go - but senior Fatah members believe the rally might mark the beginning of the end of the bloody Hamas regime in Gaza.

Opposition to Hamas in the Strip, and concomitantly renewed support for Fatah, are on the rise, and the recent violence is expected to reduce Hamas' status further on the Palestinian street, as people in Gaza see Hamas using its terror tactics against its own people.

But even before the rally, Gaza Strip Fatah leaders, who are watching events mainly from hiding in Ramallah or in Cairo, can note with satisfaction the numbers their organization brought to the rally.

Al Jazeera, not known for its support of Fatah, estimated that about 200,000 demonstrators were present. This is an important sign of the frustration in Gaza with the Hamas regime, which is unable to ameliorate the distress in the Strip, worsened by the sanctions Israel and the international community has imposed.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian research institute Jerusalem Media and Communication Center revealed that support for Fatah had risen from 30.6 percent in the West Bank and Gaza in September 2006, to 40 percent now, while support for Hamas declined from 29.7 percent to 19.7 percent in the same time period.

The poll also revealed that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is still the second-most popular leader in the territories, after Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. However Haniyeh is almost completely uninvolved in decision-making now. Sunday, too, his rivals in the organization were the ones calling the shots: former foreign minister Mahmoud a-Zahar, and the members of the Hamas military wing led by Ahmed al-Ja'abari.

Israeli intelligence sources say Ja'abari is the real man in charge in Gaza now. Not only does he force his authority on Haniyeh; he is also trying to shake off the influence of Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of the Hamas political wing.

The hard line of the military wing has prevented any easing of the sanctions on Gaza, and has apparently disrupted attempts at a deal to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It may also increase the chance of large-scale Israeli military operation in the Strip following the Annapolis summit.

Israel believes Fatah is still far from reasserting itself vis-a-vis Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Senior PA officials have warned Israel against moves toward a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Such a withdrawal, they say will lead to more West Bank cities falling to Hamas, whose people are more inspired and organized than Fatah.

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