GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel's new offensive against the Gaza Strip has turned into a political bonanza for the territory's Hamas rulers, while sidelining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, their Western-backed rival in the West Bank.
Gazans feeling unfairly attacked by Israel have been watching with gleeful pride as Hamas militants fire rockets deeper than ever into Israel and Arab leaders flock to previously isolated Gaza to show solidarity. Growing collateral damage from Israel's massive aerial bombardments of Hamas targets does not appear to have hurt the Islamists' sudden popularity.
Saed Moaserji, a 19-year-old engineering student from Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp, said he felt intense pride after Hamas rocket squads for the first time this week targeted Jerusalem.
"I never liked Hamas, but I wished I could kiss the forehead of the one who fired the rocket on Jerusalem," Moaserji said Saturday, standing outside a local Hamas commander's two-story home that had just been flattened in an airstrike.
The support was in sharp contrast to recent months, when the Islamist group seemed to be flailing, riven by internal divisions over the direction of the movement and the refusal of Egypt's new government to lift a Gaza blockade imposed by Israel and the previous regime in Cairo after Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
Meanwhile, a mention of Abbas — formally the leader of all Palestinians — elicited shrugs or even scorn in Gaza.
Many Palestinians have lost faith in Abbas' attempt to set up a state through negotiations with Israel, but he appeared particularly marginalized as he tried to exert influence over the latest events in Gaza by calling foreign leaders from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Abbas, who has not visited Gaza since the Hamas takeover, acknowledged that he also tried to call Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, but did not get an immediate response. Mashaal eventually returned Abbas' call.
Ahmed Hatoum, a Gaza City resident, said Abbas' approach has been futile, pointing to two decades of intermittent negotiations without results. Hatoum and others in Gaza argued that Israel started the current round of fighting with the assassination of the Hamas military chief Wednesday and that Palestinians have the right to shoot back.
"There is no political solution with the Israelis," said Hatoum, 60, whose house windows were shattered Saturday by an air attack on Haniyeh's office. "They only understand the language of force."
Israel and Hamas have clashed repeatedly since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Four years ago, they fought a full-fledged three-week war initiated by Israel to stop rocket attacks from Gaza.
Since Wednesday, Israel has bombed Hamas' rocket launching sites, weapons depots and increasingly its symbols of power while Hamas fighters showered Israel with rockets. Forty-two Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people on both sides have seen their lives disrupted.
Sunday marks the first full work day in Gaza after a long holiday weekend. The Gaza government announced that schools would remain closed, but asked civil servants to report to their jobs. Streets have been fairly empty in recent days, but some shops were open.
The trade ministry said no shortages of fuel or food have been reported, while Israel announced its cargo crossing into Gaza — mainly for consumer goods — would reopen Sunday. Gaza's other supply route — smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt — has been blocked because of massive Israeli bombardment meant to halt weapons shipments.
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.