Only three months before Israel and the Palestinians were set to enter the most crucial phase of the peace process – permanent-status negotiations – Hamas renewed its terror campaign.
But along with the series of attacks in several Israeli cities, a rift has emerged among leaders of the fundamentalist Islamic group.
The rift became evident in conflicting leaflets distributed in eastern Jerusalem and the territories after Sunday’s attack on a Jerusalem bus.
Shortly after that attack, in which a Hamas suicide bomber claimed 18 victims, a leaflet was distributed in eastern Jerusalem by the Izz a-Din al-Kassam, Hamas’ military wing.
The leaflet was signed by “the new disciples of Yehiva Ayash,” the Hamas mastermind behind a series of terror bombings against Israelis. Ayash was killed in January at his Gaza hideout – an act widely believed to have been carried out by Israel.
The leaflet, repeating an offer made after the Feb. 25 Jerusalem bus bombing, which killed 26, proposed a cessation of Hamas terror attacks in exchange for an Israeli commitment to stop pursuing Hamas militants.
“We tell [Prime Minister Shimon] Peres that we have completed our vengeance to the death of the martyr Yehiya Ayash,” the pamphlet read. “We stop our armed struggle against Israel for three months, on the condition that the persecution of our people he stopped.
“We are ready for ceasefire and negotiations with Israel, through the Palestinian Authority.”
Sayyed Abu-Masameh, a Hamas political leader in the Gaza Strip, repeated the offer for a “temporary ceasefire.”
But a few hours later, another leaflet was distributed, also signed by Hamas, denying the contents of the previous leaflet and committing the organization to the continuation of its terrorist attacks.
Mahmoud a-Zahar, another Hamas political leader in Gaza, said, “We have received a mandate from the Palestinian people to avenge the killing of `the Engineer,’ Yehiya Ayash.”
The next day, a Hamas suicide bomber struck in the heart of Tel Aviv, killing at least 12 at a popular shopping mall on Purim eve.
The two conflicting pamphlets reflect a crisis within Hamas – a division that has its roots in the founding of Hamas in the early days of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began in late 1987.
Hamas was founded as an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, and it embarked on a parallel course to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has so far refrained from an all-out confrontation with the rival organization.
Unlike the militant Islamic Jihad movement, Hamas aspired to take over the Palestinian community first by humanitarian activities, providing the society with social, educational and medical services.
The military operations of the Izz a-Din al-Kassam group came later. The rifts that became evident this week reflected the divergent tactics of the Kassam militants and the broader Hamas leadership.
Pinhas Inbari, in his new book “The Palestinians Between Terrorism and Statehood,” describes the rift within Hamas not only as ideological, but also a clash of personalities.
The power base of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound leader of Hamas now serving a life sentence in Israel for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, was in the Gaza Strip.
Abu Marzuk, the leader of Izz a-Din al-Kassam, opened offices in Tehran and Damascus, and he has directed his group’s violence to complicate relations between Israel and the PLO.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, downplayed the Syrian connection, calling Hamas activity in Damascus a “public relations operation.”
“It is not the statements that make the difference, but the explosives,” Rabinovich said at a Washington news conference Monday, adding that Israel would nonetheless like to see Syria close down the Hamas office in Damascus.
For seven months, since a Hamas suicide bomber destroyed a bus in August in Jerusalem, there was relative quiet.
Arafat’s emissaries negotiated with Hamas in December in Cairo before the Palestinian elections. No agreement was reached, except for an understanding that Hamas would refrain from carrying out terrorist attacks against Israelis within areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
But the latest series of terror attacks indicate that the militant elements within Hamas have given up on dialogue with the Palestinian Authority.
After the killing of Ayash, the militants suddenly had their excuse to dispatch the suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority head Arafat is caught in a bind.
After Sunday’s attack, he accepted Israel’s demand and outlawed the military wings of Hamas “and other military groups” in the self-rule areas and began a series of mass arrests there as well.
But the extremist elements of Hamas number only in the dozens, while the broader movement comprises some 20 percent of the Palestinian community.
Arafat cannot engage in an all-out confrontation with the entire Hamas movement if he wants to maintain Palestinian national harmony.
Yet failure to act against militants may mean a total freeze of the peace process.
While Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had hoped that the peace process would bring them markedly improved economic conditions, they instead find themselves being dragged into a deeper and increasingly bitter confrontation with Israel.
As a result of the terror attacks this week and last, the Israeli Cabinet adopted a plan to separate the Israeli and Palestinian populations, a move that could prevent some 60,000 Palestinians from reaching their jobs in Israel.
It is a no-win situation for both Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has lost its sons and daughters; the Palestinians are losing their means of livelihood.
The tragedy is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have no real solutions to their mutual challenges.
Israel has no real answer to the suicide killers; the Palestinians have no alternative to their jobs in Israel.
Regardless of whether the Hamas truce offers this week and last were genuine, they may eventually offer a possible way out of the tangle.
According to unconfirmed reports, Israeli officials have been engaged in informal talks with Hamas in the past – and they may do so again in the near future.
After all, there were times when negotiations with the PLO were considered heresy.