JERUSALEM - Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip has widened the rift between Palestinians who back moderate leaders' search for a peace accord with the Jewish state and those drawn to Hamas' call for armed struggle.
The breach was on display Friday in the West Bank as the territory's U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority leadership, struggling to contain rising anger over the death toll in Hamas-ruled Gaza, sent police to put down pro-Hamas demonstrations.
One in Ramallah turned into a shouting match between about 2,000 marchers with green Hamas flags and 500 with the yellow banners of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
While condemning the assault as "criminal," Abbas insisted that Hamas is responsible because it ended a truce with Israel two weeks ago. Hamas, in turn, has branded him an Israeli collaborator -- one of the worst slurs imaginable for a Palestinian.
The rift between the factions hit a critical point in June 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah security forces from Gaza after street battles. Since then, Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, has had sole control of Gaza. Fatah has continued to exercise power in the West Bank, where it has banned Hamas from political activity.
The fortunes of the two territories -- which together with East Jerusalem would make up a future Palestinian state -- have diverged sharply since Hamas' takeover of Gaza. While economic conditions for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank have improved as international money poured in, Gaza's 1.5 million people have suffered under an Israeli embargo.
As Hamas stepped up rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza over the past year, Abbas has pursued talks with Israeli leaders with the aim of an independent Palestinian state. But after 14 months, Israeli leaders and Abbas are no closer to a statehood accord and Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza. "People are frustrated by this internal division," said Hani Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah. "They see each faction working alone, for itself, unable to bring about any improvement for the Palestinians as a whole."
"There is no unity in the national movement and no unity in the street," said Qais Abdul Karim, a Palestinian Legislative Council member who belongs to neither faction. "These attacks have increased the divisions. They should have done the opposite."
With Israel barring foreign journalists from Gaza, it is difficult to ascertain whether the attack has helped or hurt Hamas' reputation. Fatah officials say they hope the latter is the case. "Hamas right now is making a big mistake," said Ziad Abu Ein, a deputy minister in the Palestinian Authority and a Fatah member. "The people are turning against them and want to get rid of them. Just not by the hand of the Israelis."
The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post contributed to this report.