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HomeMiddle EastFor Mahmoud Abbas, a Gesture. For Critics, a Betrayal.

For Mahmoud Abbas, a Gesture. For Critics, a Betrayal.

JERUSALEM — For Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, what was intended as a gesture of respect for a man of peace has brought him anything but peace back home.

His brief visit to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and president of Israel, and his handshake with the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, brought a fierce backlash from many Palestinians who called it an act of betrayal by a leader who has grown out of touch.

The youth movement of Mr. Abbas’s own Fatah party at one university declared that he had “committed a crime” and called on him to apologize and resign. A Palestinian military officer was so critical of Mr. Abbas on Facebook that security forces went to his home and arrested him. On Twitter, angry Palestinians used Arabic hashtags that translate to #Treason, #CondolenceForTheKiller and #AbbasDoesNotRepresentMe.

“Abu Mazen’s participation in the funeral is an absolute disgrace to the Palestinian people,” Abu Samah, 52, an electrician from Ramallah, said in an interview, using Mr. Abbas’s nickname.

Abu Nidal, 36, a taxi driver, complained that Mr. Abbas had joined an Israeli event even as Israelis used force against Palestinians to administer the occupation of the West Bank and continued to build settlements on land claimed by Palestinians.

“Why would you honor a man responsible for the killing of your own people and then willingly shake the hands of the current enemy who is continuing to enforce the torture of his people?” Mr. Nidal asked. “Shame on you, Abu Mazen.”

The reaction to Mr. Abbas’s attendance at the funeral underscored divergent views of Mr. Peres. In Israel, the United States and much of the world, he was admired for his part in negotiating the Oslo accords, which won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

But he was remembered in the West Bank, in Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab world as an Israeli security hawk who was instrumental in building Israel’s military might and promoted settlements on Palestinian territory. He also launched a military offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1996, during which Israeli artillery shelling of a United Nations base killed scores of Lebanese refugees, many of them children.

The wave of criticism also reflects the weakened domestic position for Mr. Abbas and his ruling team after more than a decade in power at the Palestinian Authority. With the peace process frozen, Mr. Abbas has little to show for his cooperation with Israel on security and other matters, according to many Palestinians in the West Bank, who see their leaders as, in effect, Israeli collaborators.

To his critics, Mr. Abbas seems less interested in his domestic audience than the international community, particularly in Washington. And yet his international patrons are worried that he is losing the credibility that would be necessary for a peace process to have a chance at success, should it ever be restarted.

Mr. Abbas earned praise from world leaders for attending the funeral while other Arab leaders stayed away. In his eulogy, President Obama hailed him for coming. Official Palestinian news agencies published interviews praising Mr. Abbas for acting like a statesman and creating new opportunities for negotiations.

Mohammed al-Madani, an adviser to Mr. Abbas who attended the funeral with him, said the decision to go would advance the Palestinian cause internationally.

“All the world leaders who were at the funeral applauded the president’s participation, and 90 percent of the attendants shook his hands,” Mr. Madani told a Fatah-affiliated radio station, according to Maan News, an Arabic news agency. “It was a political move rather than just participation in a funeral.”

Mahmoud Habbash, who served for years as religious affairs adviser for Mr. Abbas, said the Palestinian leader had acted in the best tradition of his faith. The Prophet Muhammad participated in his Jewish neighbor’s funeral, he told Arabic news outlets, “and Peres is our neighbor.”

The 1996 shelling that killed Lebanese refugees sheltered at the United Nations base made Mr. Abbas’s presence at the funeral especially controversial in Lebanon.

“There is nothing worse than the death of the former Israeli president Shimon Peres, quietly, on the land of occupied Palestine, except the pilgrimage of Arab and Palestinian officialdom to participate in his funeral,” the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar declared in an editorial.

Another Lebanese newspaper, Assafir, described Mr. Abbas’s participation as “shaking the hands of a killer at the funeral of a killer.”

The decision gave Mr. Abbas’s foes in Hamas fresh ammunition against him. Mahmoud Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas, told an Iranian television channel that under Islamic law, Mr. Abbas now qualified as a Jew. “I pray for Allah that he will join Peres in hell,” Mr. Zahar said.

The criticism extended inside Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party and across social media. Cartoons mocking him were posted and shared. One such cartoon showed Mr. Abbas placing a wreath on a boot representing Mr. Peres; on Mr. Abbas’s backside was a boot print. A Facebook video posted by a critic who excoriated Mr. Abbas had more than 330,000 views by Sunday evening.

The funeral was held as violence, and the fear of it, continued. A Palestinian man stabbed an Israeli soldier on Friday at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem and was then shot to death, according to the Israeli authorities. Israeli forces shut down all crossings with the West Bank for two days for Rosh Hashana, as they typically do during Jewish holidays.

The Palestinian authorities have reacted sharply to some of the criticism. Besides arresting the Palestinian officer, who wrote on Facebook that Mr. Abbas had “made a mistake” by agreeing to “participate in the funeral of the killer of our people,” the authorities shut down the website of the Fatah youth movement at Birzeit University, which had condemned Mr. Abbas for his “betrayal.” Several students were reported to have been detained.

Mr. Abbas seemed to react to the criticism by taking a hard line on Israel again as soon as he returned home. At a factory groundbreaking ceremony in Bethlehem, he vowed to break the Israeli occupation.

“It is true that we are a state under an occupation that persecutes, oppresses, seizes our land piece by piece, runs after our youth and destroys our homes,” he said, according to reports from the event.

“Let them do what they want and build what they want, but we will build our nation and will establish our independent state.”

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(via NY Times)