Expectation of Elections Fans Palestinian Rivalry

Palestinian factions have agreed to halt internecine fighting, but still are vying for leadership in West Bank and Gaza Strip

DESPITE skirmishes on Saturday, an agreement between the mainstream Palestinian movement, Fatah, and the opposition Islamist group, Hamas, has curbed the worst internal Palestinian violence since the eruption of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip almost five years ago.

But analysts and observers expect the two groups to continue to brace themselves for a political showdown, especially if the new Israeli government - based on a coalition between the Labor Party and the left - approves elections of Palestinian representatives to lead the occupied territories through a three-year interim period toward self-rule.

The victory of the Israeli Labor Party in June 23 elections fueled divisions between proponents of the peace process, led by Fatah, and opponents of talks with Israel, led by Hamas. The Labor Party won on a platform advocating some form of self-rule in the occupied territories, which both Fatah and Hamas leaders believe will involve elections. The two movements are vying for the leadership of the 1.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Street and house-to-house fighting that left one dead and at least 100 wounded in the Gaza Strip - the stronghold of the Islamist opposition - immediately followed the Labor victory.

Both sides ordered a halt to the inter-Palestinian violence following a joint appeal by Fatah and Hamas leaders in Amman on Thursday as the two concluded that the fighting was giving Israel an opportunity to tighten its grip on the Palestinians. Israel imposed a curfew immediately following the outbreak of violence. Leaders also noted a strong grass-roots opposition to violence, as a broad range of Palestinian groups demanded an end to the fighting.

Although Hamas, which was formed immediately after the intifadah and has refused to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), continues to oppose peace talks with Israel, many Palestinians believe it will not boycott elections.

"Both sides are practically preparing for the elections," says an independent PLO official.

Hamas officials say they have not altered their position and that last week's violence was a warning to the PLO of the growing opposition to the peace process.

"We do not condone violence, but the fighting indicated clearly to the PLO the growing size of Palestinian opposition to the peace talks," says Ibrahim Ghosheh, Hamas spokesman in Amman.

Fatah officials disagree. They argue that prospects for the success of the peace process have undermined Hamas. "There were many indications that Hamas influence has been in decline," maintains Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fatah activist deported from the West Bank.

In the coming months, as Israelis and Palestinians are expected to discuss elections, each side will vie for Palestinian support.

"The PLO has to respect the choice of the Palestinian people," argues Mr. Ghosheh, who believes that the opposition to the peace talks will prove to be the majority in the next few months.

Fatah officials concede that a setback in the peace process will undermine support for the PLO, but not enough to allow Hamas to replace the organization.

In an unusually conciliatory tone that probably indicates that the movement has decided to shun a premature confrontation, Hamas officials say they have no plans to replace the PLO.

"Such a goal is neither part of the movement's tactical or strategic objectives," says Ghosheh.

Many analysts believe that the grass-roots rejection of inter-Palestinian violence also convinced Hamas leaders that an outright challenge to PLO authority could backfire at this stage.

Fatah leaders were also alarmed that the conflict could mobilize public opinion in the Arab world against the mostly secular PLO.

The other groups of the PLO, which are dominantly leftist, are concerned that the Fatah-Hamas showdown might undermine the Palestinian negotiating position and weaken the secular nature of the nationalist movement.

Until the emergence of Hamas, Fatah, under the leadership of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, had succeeded in providing a broad front for Palestinian nationalists ranging from Marxist leftists to Islamists without dropping its centrist pragmatic platform.

But with the rapid emergence of Hamas and the insurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world, Fatah has been seeking to maintain a balance between its appeal to the religious community and its support of peace talks with Israel.

"Whether we like it or not we admit that the progress of peace efforts will be a crucial factor in determining the current power struggle, but we believe that the process is moving in our interests," a Fatah official says.

"We are not talking here about achieving all of the aspirations of our people but of alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation," he says, reflecting an apparently growing receptivity among PLO leaders toward a compromise with Israel.

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