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Palestinians feel solidarity, and unease, with uprising in Egypt

It’s been a first for many Palestinians.

Usually they are the ones fighting on the streets, throwing rocks and choking on tear gas as the rest of the Arab world watches from afar.

But now they find themselves transfixed by television images of Arab brethren in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen demanding their rights. The role reversal has left many Palestinians with a sense of solidarity, unease over how events will affect their own bid for statehood and perhaps a little feeling of vindication.

“We identify with the Egyptian uprising because we’ve been through it,” said Mamdouh Aker, head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights. “And we think they were inspired by our own struggle and intifada.”

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Aker was among about 200 protesters who gathered Saturday in the West Bank city of Ramallah to demonstrate their support for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom demonstrators condemned as an “agent of the CIA” and a collaborator with Israel.

Such protests put Palestinian leaders in an uncomfortable position. Fearing that the popular uprisings that are sweeping through Arab nations might catch on among Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and its rival, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, have moved quickly to quell demonstrations.

Both are also worried about upsetting their relationships with Egypt or other Arab governments providing them with substantial political and financial support.

Until Saturday, the Palestinian Authority had banned most anti-Mubarak protests, though it allowed one pro-Mubarak demonstration. It used force to break up a spontaneous demonstration Wednesday night in Ramallah’s Manara Square, where dozens had gathered to voice outrage over the violent clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. An earlier protest in front of the Egyptian representative office was also quickly shut down.

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The Palestinian Authority, which has had a close relationship with Mubarak, has yet to take a public position on Egypt’s unrest. Adnan Damiri, security spokesman for the authority, said the crackdown on gatherings was intended to maintain neutrality. “The PA bans interference in the internal affairs of Arab or foreign countries,” he said.

In Gaza, Hamas authorities broke up a small sit-in last week and beat journalists attempting to cover it, witnesses said. On Monday, in what many interpreted as a show of force, armed and masked men who are members of Hamas’ military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, patrolled a number of neighborhoods in Gaza City.

Though Hamas, an Islamic militant group, is no fan of Mubarak, whom it accuses of cooperating with Israel, its leaders fear that public protests could eventually challenge their own authority.

In recent days, a Facebook campaign attracting several thousand supporters has called for “Gazans to wake up and begin their uprising against the unjust Hamas regime.” The Web page, which is calling for a Feb. 11 mass rally, appears to be partly organized by Fatah, Hamas’ rival.

Though it has restricted protests, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has joined other anxious Arab governments in announcing reforms designed to relieve public frustration. The authority promised last week to reschedule long-delayed elections, perhaps for as soon as May. Presidential elections were postponed in 2009 and local elections were canceled last spring. Officials had said balloting could not be held until Fatah and Hamas mended their differences; the two parties’ unity government fractured in 2007.

Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas see Egypt as crucial to their survival.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has relied heavily on support from Mubarak in Mideast peace talks. Egypt also has fostered reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas has ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition party that could emerge as a power broker in a new government. Hamas also has relied on Egypt to provide access for Gaza to the outside world since Israel imposed a land and naval blockade on the seaside enclave.

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Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said he was confident that Egypt would remain a supporter of Mideast peace talks and Palestinian statehood, regardless of who emerges as the next leader.

But Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri said that developments in Egypt have put the authority in an awkward position.

“The majority of the Palestinian people are against Mubarak,” he said. “But there are groups within the PA and Fatah that are afraid of a change,” Masri said, and Palestinian leaders worry that the next Egyptian government won’t have the time to support peace talks or any interest in doing so.

Though some have suggested that the popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world might inspire similar revolts among Palestinians, several officials and analysts expressed doubt. Although Palestinians have long voiced frustration over their leaders’ corruption and oppression, anger toward Israel is a unifying factor.

“The PA needs to do a better job, for sure,” said Ramallah resident Manal Mohamed, 46, waving a small paper Egyptian flag at Saturday’s rally. “But the Israeli occupation is the real problem.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah and Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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