Wall Street Journal
February 8, 2008

In West Bank, Fatah Loses Favor
Cam Simpson

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The popularity of the U.S.-backed Palestinian government here is eroding for the first time since it was established following the Islamist group Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, according to a poll.

Perhaps more disconcerting for the Bush administration and Israel: Hamas's popularity, while still lower than that of the more secular Fatah party, is on the rise, reversing a nearly two-year slide as the Islamist group has begun to reassert itself.

President Bush and the Israeli government have been banking that by flooding the West Bank's Western-backed, Fatah-led government with diplomatic and economic support, they could persuade Palestinians in both territories to embrace Fatah and isolate Hamas.

The polling data of Palestinian sentiment in both enclaves, collected by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank, suggest the gambit could be failing. The institution's survey work has been used by Bush administration officials to make the case that their strategy was working.

West Bank leaders, particularly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are crucial to the White House's broader Middle East strategy, which envisions stabilizing the region through an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

The polling data suggest an abiding skepticism among Palestinians about Mr. Bush's peace process. "I think the administration, the Israelis and [Mr. Abbas] need to re-evaluate," said Khalil Shikaki, head of the survey group.

The turnaround in sentiment is just one in a string of recent setbacks for Mr. Abbas and his West Bank government, headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a Texas-educated economist.

After months of relative silence, Hamas is reasserting itself, helping bolster its popularity, according to Mr. Shikaki and other Palestinian analysts. Islamist militants used blowtorches, explosives and bulldozers to bring down huge swaths of an iron wall along the border with Egypt last month, symbolically ending a blockade of Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza celebrated, flocking to buy goods in Egypt after months of privation.

In another sign of its assertiveness, Hamas this week claimed credit for its first suicide attack inside Israel in more than three years. The bombing at a crowded shopping mall in Dimona killed a 73-year-old Israeli woman. The attack was carried out after the poll was conducted.

Overall satisfaction with Mr. Abbas among all Palestinians fell four percentage points, to 46% in the latest poll from 50% in December. Survey participants were asked if they were satisfied with Mr. Abbas and were given four choices: very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied and not satisfied at all.

The drop comes after months of sustained gains for Mr. Abbas following the Hamas takeover in Gaza. The popularity of the Fatah political movement headed by Mr. Abbas slipped as well, falling about three percentage points, to 46%, since December among all Palestinians. That decline was steeper in Gaza, where Fatah's popularity fell six percentage points, also to 46%.

Conversely, Hamas's popularity is up three percentage points among all Palestinians, reaching 34%. In Gaza, Hamas is up six percentage points, to 39%.

Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, prompting the Israeli government and the Bush administration to lead a world-wide boycott of the Palestinian Authority. After the Hamas-controlled government was seated, popular support for the Islamist group began slipping -- about one percentage point every quarter, according to Mr. Shikaki.

The decline accelerated after June 2007, when tensions between Hamas and Fatah boiled over and the Islamists routed their rivals in a military sweep of Gaza, killing dozens of fellow Palestinians in street fighting. Following the violence, Hamas lost six percentage points of support in one quarter, according to Mr. Shikaki..

"Hamas is recovering from its worst mistake and is probably on its way to regaining its full level of support," Mr. Shikaki said yesterday. His poll, of 3,430 Palestinian adults, was conducted from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3 in face-to-face interviews in the West Bank and Gaza.

Discontent with Messrs. Abbas and Fayyad was apparent this week across the West Bank, even before the poll was released. Palestinian Authority workers and teachers shut down the West Bank government for two days, outraged over a decision by Mr. Fayyad to begin collecting unpaid utility bills from civil servants by docking their government checks.

"It's a very serious injustice," said Nasim Yusef Hamayil, the 52-year-old headmaster of a secondary school in Abu Fallah, a small West Bank village northeast of Ramallah. "We were hopeful when [Mr. Fayyad] started," said Mr. Hamayil. "But now we believe he is a failed leader."

Mr. Fayyad also has stirred anger by paring back Palestinian Authority payrolls, the leading source of income in the occupied territories, by more than 30,000 workers, or 16%. A ban on demonstrations also has Palestinians seething. Recently, a group of veteran Palestinian leaders who have fought against Israel stood up against Mr. Fayyad's government.

"I think they are in a very critical situation," said Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst. "After Annapolis, they are clearly losing."

Mr. Fayyad didn't respond to requests for interviews made to his office.

There has been little tangible improvement on the ground for Palestinians since peace talks began. That is weakening Mr. Abbas and his allies, said political analysts. At the same time, Israel has stepped up its attacks on militants in Gaza, creating a fresh wave of Palestinian anger. Mr. Abbas's image suffered recently when he appeared on television with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the same day that Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians in Gaza in response to rocket attacks.

Other factors also are weighing on the popularity of Mr. Bush's allies. This has been one of the coldest winters in the region since 1992 as frost devastates Palestinian farmers, a crisis to which Mr. Fayyad's government has been slow to respond. According to Firas Badran, a Palestinian agronomist, as much as 90% of Palestinian crops in the fields have been wiped out, while as much as 50% of the crops in hothouses also face ruin. In addition, food prices have risen roughly 3.4% since just after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.