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News Analysis: Death of Leading Hamas Terrorist Not Halting Palestinian Elections

Although Palestinians this week mourned the death of Hamas terrorist Yehiya Ayash, his killing did not impede the process leading up to Palestinian elections.

Too much is at stake in what for Palestinians is their first taste of democracy. The death of the man known as “The Engineer” – who was viewed by many Palestinians as a national hero – will not be allowed to spoil the Jan. 20 balloting.

Ayash, who topped Israel’s most-wanted list for masterminding a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis, was killed in an explosion last Friday after he picked up a booby-trapped cellular phone at a hideout in Gaza.

As he confronted the implications of Ayash’s death, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was well aware of the electoral problems the killing could create.

Last Friday, hours after Ayash’s death was confirmed, Arafat rushed to pay condolences to Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

In a further attempt to prove his sympathy for the fallen terrorist, Arafat sent a contingent of Palestinian police officers to salute the deceased at the funeral procession the next day.

But Arafat himself conveniently stayed away from the funeral, preferring to spend Saturday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem honoring the Christian Orthodox community on the occasion of its New Year.

But for Arafat it was all a delicate balancing act.

At a rally Sunday in the village of Dura near Hebron, Arafat called Ayash “a martyr” and urged Israel not to commit any murders “on the soil of Palestine.”

But he was careful not to embark on a collision course with the Israelis.

What made the balancing act particularly delicate was the fact that there was no love lost between “The Engineer,” his colleagues and Arafat.

Arafat’s main concern is to reach Palestinian election day in one political piece – and to win the contest. For Arafat, all the rest is marginal.

Ayash’s death was certainly a blow to Palestinian society. But Palestinians take the fall of their heroes with a measure of equanimity that is sometimes difficult to understand.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians observed a three-day mourning period with a general strike.

But in the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem, Palestinian reaction to Ayash’s death was mixed.

The shops of eastern Jerusalem on Sunday morning provided a case in point: Some were closed simply because it was Sunday, while others were closed in observance of the strike.

But the vast majority of merchants opened their shops and chatted with tourists.

True, they were ready to shut down if ordered by Hamas hooligans, but they were not rushing to give up business if not confronted.

“The strikes do not serve any purpose,” said Ahmed, the owner of a snack shop near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. “We are the only ones who lose out. I have lost years of income because of those strikes.”

Ahmed – who, at a time when critics of the Palestinian Authority are summoned for police questioning in the middle of the night, preferred not to provide his last name – condemned the killing of Ayash.

“Is this man a hero or a terrorist? I really don’t know,” Ahmed said. “But I can tell you one thing: For the Palestinians he is a hero.”

Many Palestinians, including Ahmed, do not criticize the killing itself as much as its timing.

“The Israelis should have waited until after the elections,” Ahmed said.

Israelis, meanwhile, were angered to see televised images of Palestinian police officers saluting over the grave of Ayash at Saturday’s funeral.

“What would you say if an IDF officer would salute over the grave of Baruch Goldstein?” Sufian Abu Zaide, an official in the Palestinian Authority, was asked this week by an Israel Radio moderator who questioned how Palestinian police officers could pay tribute to someone who in Israeli eyes was nothing more than a mass murderer.

Goldstein carried out the February 1994 Hebron massacre, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs before he was killed by an angry crowd of survivors of his attack.

Abu Zaide had no reply. He probably knew that no answer could satisfy Israelis.

The Palestinians, by and large, draw a distinction that cannot be bridged between Palestinian and Israeli murderers.

Perhaps it is the result of 28 years of Israeli rule; perhaps it is a matter of a different political fighters.

But in their eyes, all the Baruch Goldsteins are murderers and teh Yehiya Ayashes are freedom fighters.

But by the same token, some Palestinians feel that Israelis paint them with too broad a brush stroke, as if all those who mourned Ayash’s death were potential terrorists themselves.

“Not all the Palestinians who attended Ayash’s funeral are Hamasniks,” said Sheik Abdullah Nimer Darwish, a leading member of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a fundamentalist Israeli Arab group.

“They came there because they were furious that their house was broken into,” Darwish said, referring to the claim that Israel was responsible for the killing in territory that is under Palestinian self-rule. He said the killing of Ayash was a slap in the face for those Palestinians who believed that they were now on the road to sovereignty.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in Ayash’s death.

The killing of Ayash left Hamas with a dilemma.

On the one hand, it wanted to stick to its recent understanding with the Palestinian Authority to lower its terrorist profile in order not to interrupt the redeployment process of the Israel Defense Force in the West Bank.

On the other hand, the Hamas leadership is well aware that their supporters expected a strong reaction to the murder of their top soldier.

In a leaflet circulated last Friday in Gaza, Hamas accused the Palestinian Authority of complicity in the murder in Ayash.

Although Hamas leaders did not repeat the accusation in speeches over the weekend, the message gathered adherents.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Arafat collaborated with the Israelis in the killing of Ayash,” Ahmed said. “It was in his interest to silence `The Engineer’ just as much as it was in the interest of the Israelis.”

But the conspiracy theory, though quite popular in Arab politics in times of confusion, did not appear to dominate the ongoing electoral process.

Despite the three-day general strike declared by Hamas, the daily Arabic newspapers continued to carry the photos of dozens of candidates for the elections.

And analysts expected that the turnout on election day would be high – somewhere in the area of the 80 percent – despite criticisms that the elections were not being carried out in a democratic manner.

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