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Hamas Puts Israel in Quandary After Group Agrees to Join in Elections

March 14, 2005
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It seems oxymoronic: a terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction, joining a Palestinian Authority now engaged in political negotiation with the Jewish state. But this apparently will be the case come July, when Hamas takes part in Palestinian parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and puts Ariel Sharon’s government in a diplomatic bind.

The radical Islamic group has boycotted elections conducted by the Palestinian Authority, which was formed under the Oslo peace accords of 1993 envisaging peaceful coexistence with Israel.

But on Saturday, Hamas official Mohammed Razal announced that the group had decided to run for seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council “for the sake of the people and to rectify political failings.”

The “road map” peace plan calls for the Palestinian Authority to dismantle and disarm Hamas and other terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made it clear that he has no intention of implementing this clause to the letter. He prefers to talk rival factions into laying down their arms.

Abbas predicted that these talks would bear fruit at a conference in Cairo this week, when he predicted that 13 Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to his cease-fire with Israel.

And Israel, apparently pleased at Abbas’ success in calming down Gaza before it quits the coastal territory this summer, has not been protesting too much.

“Against the background of cries for liquidating the infrastructure of terror, the Palestinian leadership realizes, and Israel also understands, that there is no other choice than to cooperate with these organizations, which hold a violent right of veto over the peace process,” said Ha’aretz commentator Zvi Barel.

“The readiness of these organizations to participate in Palestinian politics, and at the same time adopt a cease-fire, with Egypt granting them an umbrella of legitimacy, is part of the upheaval currently under way,” he said.

Privately, some Israeli officials accept that Hamas may have made a strategic turnaround.

“No one expects the group to change its charter,” said one government official on condition of anonymity, referring to a document that calls for Israel’s destruction. “The question is how ready it is to act on this. An end to violence and terrorism is always a good thing, even if its motives are cynical.”

Before and even during the last four and a half years of fighting, senior Hamas leaders hinted that they could “accept” rather than recognize Israel’s existence if Palestinians get statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Under this doctrine, the group would “suspend” indefinitely its quest to wipe out Israel.

Many believe that in Hamas’ scheme of things, the well-being of the Palestinians comes well ahead of the jihad against the Jewish state.

Unlike Islamic Jihad, a group whose activities are devoted exclusively to terrorism and that already has announced that it will boycott the July elections, Hamas has a network of charities in the West Bank and Gaza. Its politicians are considered to be honest, in comparison with the corruption that has tainted many Palestinian Authority officials.

“With Hamas, you know who you are dealing with,” the Israeli government official said.

“If they call off the jihad, that is the way it will be. And who knows — maybe the very act of getting into politics, of dealing with the day-to-day of nation-building the West Bank and Gaza, will in itself mellow the group.”

But Jerusalem is still a long way off from having to deal with a Hamas successor to Abbas. Razal said his group has no intention of seeking seats in the Palestinian Authority’s Cabinet for now.

There is also the prospect of Palestinian infighting.

Fatah, the dominant Palestinian Authority faction, has been watching with concern the popularity Hamas has garnered in local polls, and it is redoubling its efforts to win hearts in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s not just a matter of political jockeying: Fatah represents a more moderate Palestinian, who is unhappy with the idea of Hamas ushering in a Muslim theocracy.

An example of this infighting happened Sunday. In the run-up to campus elections in Hebron University, activists from the rival factions faced off with fists and rocks. Eight students were hurt.

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