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In Hamas’ Chaotic Universe, Tough to Know What a Cease-fire Means

When Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab told reporters earlier this week that his group would be willing to accept a Palestinian state next to Israel, rather than in its place, the revelation shocked some and filled others with disdain.

A disgusted Mahmoud Al-Zahar, another leader of the terrorist group, responded to reporters’ queries by saying that the statement had been fabricated.

Abdel Aziz Rantissi, Hamas’ most radical — and most popular — figure simply ignored the comments, sticking to his line that only when Israel withdraws from every inch of the land it conquered in the 1967 Six Day War would Hamas think about even a temporary cease-fire.

The difficulty in figuring out who really speaks for Hamas, and who is telling the truth rather than spouting rhetoric, was reflected in rumors of a cease-fire that — according to conflicting reports this week — was already concluded, was imminent, was several days off or was not even under consideration.

The cease-fire, which will apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Israel proper, was negotiated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus and Marwan Barghouti, the jailed head of the mainstream Fatah movement’s terrorist militia.

Palestinian Authority sources said the draft of an agreement was given to P.A. President Yasser Arafat on Thursday and would be given to P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Friday.

Palestinian legislator Kadoura Fares, who first announced on Wednesday that an agreement had been reached, said that if there were quiet for three months the truce could be extended, The Associated Press reported.

Israel and the United States are demanding that the Palestinian Authority go beyond a cease-fire to actively dismantle the groups and confiscate their weapons, as called for in the “road map” peace plan. Israel fears the groups will take advantage of a cease-fire to rearm for future attacks.

The very concept of a hudna, an Islamic term that often is translated into English as “cease-fire,” has connotations of a temporary lull while the conditions of battle favor the opponent. Once conditions change to your favor, the hudna is broken and attacks begin again.

Israeli officials took heart from Wednesday’s comments by President Bush, who scoffed at the notion of a cease-fire and said the only solution was to dismantle the terror groups entirely.

However, Abbas has said he will not use force against the groups.

The goal of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the past has been simple and overt: a steady, patient struggle to eradicate Israel. But Abu Shanab’s interview on Tuesday was in some ways remarkable.

The Palestinians, including Hamas, have to be practical, he told reporters: “Israel’s balance of power is much greater than the whole Arab world combined. It is strong enough to make for stability for the rest of our lives, and beyond that as well.”

“I envision a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel,” he said, adding that once Israel evacuates all the territories conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War, “we will not need these militias; all the needs for attack will stop. Everything will change into a civil life.”

According to Brig. Gen. Sa’eb Ajez, head of the Palestinian National Security Agency and responsible for the northern half of the Gaza Strip, much of Hamas’ popularity stems from its power.

“I truly believe that once we reestablish power here, half of Gaza will shave its beards,” Ajez told JTA, referring to the beards that are a sign of Muslim piety and that often indicate support for fundamentalist groups like Hamas.

Ajez related that when he and other PLO leaders arrived from Tunis in 1994, he noticed that many former Hamas supporters shaved their beards. When he asked them why, they said, “Now we don’t have to be afraid.”

As far as Hamas’ internal structure goes, with Yassin ailing and exhausted Rantissi increasingly is taking the lead.

He bounced back from light injuries suffered in an Israeli assassination attempt two weeks ago, launching his most virulent rhetorical attacks against Israel: Hamas will continue attacking Israel “until the last Jew leaves Palestine,” he vowed.

As evidenced by the thousands of posters depicting deceased fighters pasted along Gaza’s streets, Hamas supporters love nothing more than a shahid, or martyr. A near-shahid such as Rantissi, who was almost taken out but lived to tell about it, is almost as good.

While Abu Shanab and Zahar wield a measure of power in the upper echelons of Hamas, it is Rantissi that has captured the hearts of the Palestinian public.

During his interview Sunday, Abu Shanab also intimated that Rantissi might have crossed an invisible boundary in his political work for Hamas.

“From the beginning we made a strategic decision to completely separate between the political and military wings of this organization,” he said. Much of the political leadership is completely unaware of the planning or execution of terror attacks, Abu Shanab claimed.

Until now, Israel seemingly has accepted this distinction, marking leaders of the military wing for assassination while sparing the political wing.

Yet all of this changed earlier this month: Communiques from the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, army and Prime Minister’s Office all claimed that Rantissi had crossed the line from political activist to terrorist through his open incitement, encouragement of and support for terrorist attacks.

Once the veil of immunity was lifted, wrote Ha’aretz columnist and satirist Doron Rosenblum, Hamas heads ran to negotiate a cease-fire with Abbas.

Yet Israel is not buying what one official called “fluffy statements,” nor the notion that Hamas might emerge from the cease-fire reformed and pacified.

On Tuesday, an army intelligence official told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hamas appears to have decided “in principle” to declare the cease-fire, but that the group is interested in “blurring” its terms.

For a large segment of Hamas, this means continuing acts of terror against Israeli civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as guerilla attacks on army bases.

On Thursday, for example, even as reports of a cease-fire multiplied, a Palestinian teen-ager walked up to an Israeli telephone repairman in Baka al-Garbiyeh, along the boundary with the West Bank, and shot him dead.

Hours later, two Palestinians carrying bombs were shot dead by Israeli security forces near Baka al-Garbiyeh. Two other men, apparently the bombers’ handlers, were arrested.

Another Israeli was wounded in a shooting attack on a West Bank settlement Thursday evening.

The attacks reflected Israeli officials’ fear that despite any cease-fire, the Palestinians will keep up a “trickle” of terrorism that the international community does not consider grave enough to stop the road map, and Israel will be pressured not to respond.

In addition, Hamas continues to accumulate power on the Palestinian street. The director of the P.A.’s Ministry for Local Government in Beit Hanoun, Abdul Rahman El Masri, believes that much of the popularity — which spiked following the attempted assassination of Rantissi — stems from Hamas’ image as a group “that actually does something. They act. And the people respect it, thinking they are doing something to help Palestinians get their rights.”

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