The question of Hamas is looming larger than ever, as Israel approaches the signing of a groundbreaking autonomy accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Will the Muslim fundamentalist movement continue to undermine what the Rabin government sees as the promise of peace between Jews and Palestinians?
Will it join in the Palestinian autonomy as a tactical step on the road to its goal of an Islamic state in all of Palestine?
Or will it one day content itself to be simply a stream in a secular Palestinian society coexisting alongside Israel?
If anything, the events of the past week brought only the questions, and not the answers, into clearer focus.
The news that a Hamas cell had been arrested for the April 13 bombing of a bus in Hadera contrasted sharply with simultaneous reports of a cease-fire agreement between Hamas and the PLO in the Gaza Strip.
Military and civilian sources said the indications of Hamas pragmatism were not unwelcome, though the Israeli army and security services will continue their relentless war against Hamas terrorism.
Last week, in the aftermath of the Hadera disaster, the similar tragedy a week before in Afula and a string of lesser attacks, the army and security forces conducted a sweep of known Hamas activists throughout the territories, arresting close to 300 of them.
Often during the past months of domestic debate and controversy over the Israeli-PLO accord, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has argued that to spurn the PLO now could mean having to deal with the intractable Hamas later.
Yet Hamas officials and spokesmen – those not rounded up in this latest dragnet – are appearing in the Israeli media with increasing frequency these days. While that is not tantamount to a formal dialogue with the government, it does mean that Israel is, to an extent, “dealing” with Hamas now.
One dramatic sign that all is not typical came late last week, in an unwontedly moderate-sounding statement by Mussa abu-Marzouk, a senior Hamas political figure now living in Jordan. He spoke of the movement’s readiness to come to terms with Israel – conditional on full withdrawal from the territories taken during the 1967 Six-Day War.
He also hinted that Hamas would participate in elections in the territories, which are scheduled to be held within months of the Gaza-Jericho self-rule accord going into effect.
This moderation was a far cry from the blood-chilling television appearances by Hamas officials in Amman, Jordan in the wake of the Afula and Hadera blasts, vowing further bloody reprisals against innocent Israelis in retaliation for the Hebron massacre of February 25.
The cease-fire accord concluded last week between Hamas and the PLO provides for an end to internecine violence, and month-long moratorium on the pursuit of “collaborators.”
These latter are often tortured and killed in the most gruesome manner, mainly by the lzz a-Din al-Kassam armed units of Hamas, but also on occasion by various bands of young gunmen professing allegiance to one or other of the nationalist-secularist Palestinian movements.
The cease-fire cannot but be seen as preparation, by both streams within Palestinian society in the Gaza, for the imminent advent of self-government.
This assessment is shared by both schools of observers on the Israelis side: those who see the signs of moderation in Hamas as merely tactical, and those who see them as presaging a deeper and move radical shift in approach by the Islamic fundamentalists living in the territories.
The present state of Hamas’ ideological development has been compared to that of the PLO in 1974, when its leader, Yasser Arafat, first showed signs of pragmatism. He spoke then of Palestinian rule in any part of the homeland relinquished by the Israeli occupier. At that time, of course, the PLO was still steeped in terror and wanton violence – as indeed it was to remain for many years thereafter.
The realization now, however, of partial Israeli withdrawal and partial Palestinian government presents Hamas with the need to make its choices faster than the PLO did.
Will Hamas take an active part in the governance of Gaza, the movement’s stronghold and the first area, along with the West Bank town of Jericho, to experiment with self-rule under the terms of the peace accord? That question will have to be answered within a matter of weeks.
Says Walid al-Hindi, 32, secretary of the Islamic University in Gaza: “If life is democratic – we will take part in running it, in order to rebuild Palestinian society.”
Al-Hindi is considered one of the rising stars in the Gaza fundamentalist firmament.
Yet he speaks without inhibitions to Israeli reporters.
His message is that the fundamentalists represent a very substantial segment of Palestinian public life and cannot be ignored – either by the PLO or by Israel.
Another, more senior figure in the movement, who declined to be quoted by name, told the Israel newspaper Ha’aretz this week that Israel ought to be interested in encouraging “moderates” inside Hamas to influence, in turn, the hardliners.
The jailed founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was quoted in Reuters this week as saying that Hamas opposition to the peace accord would be non-violent.
But for Israel, at this stage at any rate, the view of Hamas must still be, principally, through the sights of a rifle.
On Wednesday, a Hamas activist was arrested in the stabbing of two Israeli soldiers at Jerusalem’s largest shopping mall.
And on Tuesday, a day the alleged Hadera bombers were apprehended, police sources disclosed that two Israeli Arabs had been arrested too, suspected of having abetted them in their ghoulish mission.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, survivors of the Afula attack and relatives of the dead demonstrated in support of their demand for a commission of inquiry to investigate the episode. Why, they shouted, had the government, the army and the police not been able to prevent the attack?
Hamas, after all, had warned it would strike.