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Hope for Moderation Persists After Killing of Hamas’ Leader

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The 1.3 million Palestinian residents of Gaza stand at a historic crossroads, but they don’t know which way to go.

There are loud and passionate battle cries, but little hope. There are conflicting powers, but no real leaders.

Israel’s killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin has tipped the scale of popularity in Gaza in favor of Hamas.

However, the PLO — which reigns through the Palestinian Authority — won’t simply hand over power to Hamas once Israel withdraws from the strip, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to do.

“Fifteen years ago, Hamas counted for about 10 percent of the population,” said Matan Vilnai, a Knesset member from the opposition Labor Party. “Now it accounts for 50 percent.”

Vilnai watched Hamas grow when he was a senior Israeli army officer in charge of Israel’s southern command between 1989 and 1994.

No one knows the exact balance of power between Hamas and the secular Palestinian militant groups.

Gaza is a complicated place, and an Israeli withdrawal is likely to make it even more so, at least in the near term.

A pullout of Israeli troops and settlers is a golden opportunity for Hamas to take control in the strip, but the militant Islamic group does not want to burn all bridges with the Palestinian Authority.

Both moderates and radicals look forward to the day after an Israeli withdrawal, with radicals hoping all hell breaks loose once Israel leaves.

Rather than preparing themselves earnestly for the day after Israel’s withdrawal, the Palestinian powers in Gaza are busy competing with each other to determine who will take charge.

“This is very much contrary to the legacy of Sheik Yassin,” Sheik Abdullah Nimmer Darwish of the Islamic Movement in Israel told JTA in an interview.

“He wanted to avert internal strife at all cost,” Darwish claimed — though Hamas had been building up its power in defiance of the Palestinian Authority long before Yassin was killed on March 22.

Darwish, a resident of the Israeli Arab city of Kafr Kassem and a relative moderate in Israel’s Islamic Movement, is concerned about what will happen in Gaza now that Yassin is gone.

Darwish did not directly criticize Yassin’s successor in Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, who shares Yassin’s intransigence toward Israel. Rantissi’s inflexibility is a cause for concern among some moderate Palestinians, in Israel proper and in some Arab capitals elsewhere in the Middle East.

That’s partly why some 225 prominent Palestinians issued a call for non-violence between Israelis and Palestinians after the killing of Yassin. The group twice published a statement in the official P.A. daily newspaper, Al Ayyam, urging restraint and peaceful protest instead of violent revenge for Yassin’s killing.

The statement also blamed Israel for escalating violence.

“We feel Sharon has dictated his agenda on both sides, condemning the Israeli people to acts of retaliation and more suicide bombings, and he has also forced the hand of the Palestinian organizations to exact revenge,” said Hanan Ashrawi, one of the signatories.

But the statement also implied criticism of Hamas by rejecting the terrorist group’s declared policy of “open war” against Israel.

“It is not in the Palestinians’ interest for the conflict to become an armed conflict,” said another signatory to the statement, Ahmad Hilles, head of the mainstream Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip.

Other signatories included Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University near Jerusalem; Yasser Abed Rabbo, the former P.A. minister of information who was a partner to the “Geneva accord” peace proposal; the P.A. minister for women, Zuheira Kamal; and Azzam al-Ahmad, P.A. minister of communications and technology.

It’s not the first time prominent Palestinians have made moderate public statements. But last week’s statement was significant because it came just after the killing of Yassin, which was universally condemned in the Arab world.

The statement reflected increasing calls by some Palestinians for a drastic change in the course of the intifada. Some have taken to staging non-violent — or at least, not lethally violent — protests against Israel, especially against the construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

It was no coincidence that most of the signatories came from the West Bank, in contrast to the more radical Gaza Strip.

Such calls have fueled other developments as well, including Egypt’s invitation to host an impromptu Arab League summit. A summit scheduled for this week in Tunisia was canceled largely because Arab leaders couldn’t agree on a commitment to move toward democracy and political reform.

Egypt has renewed efforts to introduce far-reaching reforms in the Palestinian security forces to smooth the transfer of power once Israel withdraws from Gaza.

Egypt is hoping it can exert pressure on P.A. President Yasser Arafat to create a unified military command in the Palestinian-populated territories, but similar initiatives in the past have failed. The multiplicity of security forces allows Arafat to prevent other Palestinians from amassing power and, many analysts believe, creates a situation of chaos within which Palestinians can perpetrate terrorist attacks while ducking responsibility.

Before Yassin was killed, he had talked with other Palestinian factions about what Gaza would look like after an Israeli pullout. Talks were held under the umbrella of the Higher Fellowship Committee, which includes all the bodies in the PLO, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Since Yassin’s killing, there are no signs that Hamas wants to challenge the leadership of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. For the time being, at least, Hamas believes it can gain more by avoiding a showdown with the national leadership and deepening the rift in the Palestinian community.

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