Winds of change: Palestinians hold elections and host a rich visitor

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Recent developments in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories indicate that Arab Spring winds are influencing the situation there.

Fatah, the larger of the two Palestinian parties and led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is nominally in charge of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Hamas, led by its prime minister, Ismail Haniya, rules in the Gaza Strip.

Last Saturday municipal elections were held in 93 cities and villages in the West Bank. Fatah won some seats and lost others. Hamas boycotted the elections, the first among the Palestinians in six years. The 55 percent turnout was relatively low.

The lack of voter enthusiasm was attributed to a poor economy, with 17 percent unemployment in the West Bank, frustration at Mr. Abbas' failure to achieve talks with the Israelis toward an independent Palestinian homeland, but mostly sentiment that such elections were the equivalent of canaries in a cage pretending they were choosing leaders.

Another key development was the visit Tuesday to Gaza by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of oil-rich Qatar, the first head of state to do so since Hamas assumed rule there in 2007. The emir pledged $400 million to Gaza, where unemployment is 30 percent, for housing, a medical center and roads. Other international aid there has averaged only about $300 million annually. The emir entered Gaza by road from Egypt, now led by President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is unlikely that previous Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would have allowed such a visit.

Egypt has replaced troubled Syria as Gaza's and Hamas' primary protector. Qatar, instrumental in the overthrow of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and now a supporter of anti-Bashar Assad Syrians, is a useful and wealthy new friend for Hamas. The emir is firmly in place, with substantial oil wealth and a U.S. military base to assure his government's security.

Whether any of these developments will lead to meaningful negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Israel continues to pour settlers, who now number more than a half-million, into lands that would become an independent Palestine if one were achieved.

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