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For Israel and Hamas, Questions of Violence and Politics to Answer

Israel faces a tempting opportunity to try to hurt Hamas, both militarily and politically. In the past two weeks, the Islamist terrorist group has suffered several setbacks and has lost points in Palestinian public opinion:

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar almost begged Israel not to continue punishing Gaza for a barrage of some 40 Kassam rockets that Hamas fired on the Israeli town of Sderot.

Palestinian Authority police in Gaza imposed a ban on the public display of weapons by anyone outside the regular security forces.

Hamas fared poorly in West Bank municipal elections, a far cry from the movement’s victory in Gaza municipal elections in January.

What happened?

The election results were an initial political indication that the more moderate, ruling Fatah Party would reap the immediate benefits of Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Fatah now controls 51 of 104 municipalities, with Hamas winning only 13.

So are the good times over for Hamas? Far from it.

Analysts say the municipal elections had little connection to the withdrawal. Hamas’ weakening was partly due to the fact that in many villages the dominant force is the family, not a political faction: Local groupings of large families or clans won control of some 40 councils, according to Jamal Shubaki, head of the P.A.’s election commission.

In any case, Hamas traditionally has been weaker in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip.

The recent deterioration in Hamas’ status began when rockets the group was parading at a Sept. 23 march celebrating the Israeli withdrawal exploded unexpectedly, killing 21 people and wounding more than 100. Hamas falsely accused Israel for the incident, and launched dozens of rockets on Sderot and neighboring Israeli communities just over the Gaza border.

Israel retaliated by renewing its targeted killings of leading terrorists, shelling targets in Gaza and undertaking a massive arrest campaign of Hamas activists in the West Bank. Hamas’ leadership realized too late that Palestinian public opinion had little sympathy for Hamas’ provocations.

P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas came out strongly against Hamas’ attempt to put the blame on Israel. Gaza residents, who had hoped the Israeli pullout finally would bring peace and quiet, were furious at Hamas for giving Israel a pretext for closing down the territories, arresting militants and continuing the state of insecurity that was so familiar from pre-withdrawal days.

Some Israelis feel now is the time to continue pounding Hamas until it’s too weak to win the really important elections — those for the Palestinian Legislative Council, scheduled for next Jan. 25.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised recently that Israel would not facilitate those elections if Hamas takes part. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz threatened that Hamas leaders may not live to see election day.

But though Hamas has suffered blows, there’s no knockout in sight, and Mofaz knows it. He has threatened to send Hamas leaders “to the places of Ahmad Yassin and Rantissi” — two Hamas leaders Israel assassinated in 2004 — and warned that Israeli artillery along the Gaza border wasn’t there for decoration, but Mofaz knows there are limitations: Israel can’t bomb Gaza at random, lest the shells hit innocent people

Moreover, harsh punitive measures, such as renewed target killings and massive arrests, easily could ignite another round of bloody violence.

The Kassam attack was preceded by targeted killings of three Islamic Jihad terrorists in Tulkarm. It was followed by additional fatal clashes and the arrests of 441 people in the West Bank, including 40 people with political followings of a certain size.

The arrests did make it more difficult for Hamas to prepare for the municipal elections. If the pattern continues, Hamas will find it even more difficult to prepare for January’s general elections.

But can Israel echo President Bush’s statements about democratizing the Middle East while putting Abbas’ political opponents behind bars or in cemeteries? Will the next Palestinian Parliament be viable if the results of the elections will be impacted by Israeli arrests?

“Let us not delude ourselves,” Brig. Gen. Ya’ir Golan, Israel’s West Bank commander said in an interview with Ma’ariv. “We cannot run the politics of the Palestinians.”

Then he disclosed one of Israel’s secret fears: “It may very well be that the feeling of persecution will bring Hamas more votes.”

Golan put his finger on a major Israeli dilemma. For years Israel boycotted any dialogue with the because of its support for terrorism. Even so, the PLO became the major political force of the Palestinian people until, at Oslo, Israel negotiated with it.

Of course, the condition for political negotiations was that the PLO formally renounced terrorism and accepted Israel’s right to exist. Those who object to Hamas’ participation in Palestinian elections say Israel is not attempting to dictate Palestinian politics, but note that a political party doesn’t hold ballots in one hand and guns in the other.

If Hamas meets the conditions the PLO did, they say, it too can participate in the elections as a legitimate political party.

But Israel faces the danger that Hamas might become the main beneficiary of any stalemate in the political process. A June poll of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion predicted a strong Hamas showing in the next parliament, with nearly 27 percent of the seats, compared to 35 percent for Fatah, with the rest going to various left-wing parties and independents.

Another pollster, Khalil Shikaki of Ramallah, predicted that Hamas would gain as much as 30 percent to 35 percent of the seats, with 45 percent going to Fatah.

Hamas can’t just sit back and wait for miracles in January; it needs to work hard in the Palestinian street and make the difficult choice between violence and politics.

At first glance it seems Hamas has learned a lesson. In the face of the tough Israeli retaliation, the Palestinian factions on Sept. 27 reaffirmed their commitment to a “cease-fire” that was declared last winter but that they frequently ignored.

The pressure is strong on both sides: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that Hamas can’t participate in the Palestinian political process unless it disarms, but U.S. pressure also is heavy on Israel. The Americans are concerned that continued blows to Hamas may hurt Abbas. Abbas said during the weekend that Israeli raids were undermining his efforts to keep the peace.

For Israel, the dilemma remains: How much damage can be inflicted on Hamas until the attacks end up tipping the balance and strengthening the group?

If Hamas does well in January’s elections, Israel hopes power may force the group to change.

“If Hamas wins in the elections, government responsibility will compel it to behave differently,” Golan said.

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