Palestinian Islamist Group Signals Shift in Strategy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HAMAS, the leading Palestinian Islamic opposition group, is gradually shifting its rejectionist stance to accommodate the Palestinian Authority (PA) set up two months ago to implement the Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

But the militant movement, which emerged as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood during the intifadah (uprising) to resist Israeli occupation, still refuses to accept senior posts in the PA or to pledge to cease attacks against Israel, Hamas leaders and Palestinian officials say.

Hamas announced last week that it was forming a political party. At the same time, its leaders say they are reconsidering their strategy of military operations against Israel.

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Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, says that his movement is ready ``to rationalize'' its military attacks.

``I think the movement will carry out military operations only in response to blatant Israeli aggression against our people, and the scale of the attacks will be determined by the level of popular support for such a strategy,'' Mr. Haniyeh says.

Hamas has to reassess its approach to accommodate the new dual challenge of ``resisting Israeli occupation, but avoiding a showdown with the Palestinian Authority,'' Haniyeh says.

``A political party is crucial for dealing with the new situation,'' the soft-spoken leader adds.

The new Islamic party will act as the political arm of Hamas. It will allow Hamas members to take administrative posts in middle and lower PA departments and to take part in Palestinian elections, Hamas leaders and Palestinians here say.

The party will be affiliated with the movement, but its existence will enable Hamas to maintain its original strategic stand against the peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups view the PA as subservient to Israeli occupation. Hamas leaders have refused so far to meet with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Haniyeh, who represents movement's ``moderate line,'' disclosed for the first time that Hamas had declined an offer by Mr. Arafat to assume five ministerial posts in the PA.

But there are strong indications of conciliatory moves from both Arafat and Hamas. Last Thursday, Arafat visited the Islamic University of Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, and offered PA support for the institution. The next day, the Islamic University published an advertisement in Al Qods newspaper expressing gratitude for ``Brother Arafat's gracious gesture.'' Al Qods, which has emerged as the semiofficial newspaper since Arafat's return to Gaza, has also been covering Hamas news while noticeably ignoring other oppostion groups.

``There is an evident policy of accommodation by Hamas, and co-option by Arafat,'' says a leading member of Arafat's mainstream PLO group, Fatah, in Gaza, who requested anonymity.

According to Fatah and Hamas officials, there are daily contacts between the two sides, including frequent meetings between the PA-affiliated security forces and Hamas representatives.

But local Fatah officials so far have been unable to get Hamas to agree to confine its military attacks to areas still under total Israeli control.

Hamas's apparent conciliatory stand is expected to weaken the organized opposition to the PA and the Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Yet Hamas, albeit the major opposition force, is not the only player that could challenge or at least embarrass Arafat.

The Islamic Jihad, a smaller but more militant opposition group, has already posed a serious problem by claiming responsibility for several recent attacks on Israelis.

Hamas, and even less influential groups like the Islamic Jihad, are aware that they have an important bargaining chip to pressure Arafat, even if they cannot thwart the autonomy agreement.

According to the agreement, the PA and its security forces are responsible for preventing, arresting, and even extraditing suspected criminals to Israel.

``This a real dilemma,'' a PA member says. ``If we adhere strictly to the agreement and even just round up suspects, we are jeopardizing our legitimacy among our people.''

The dilemma came to the fore last week when Arafat rounded up 47 members of Islamic Jihad after a spate of attacks against Israelis. He was later forced to release them under immense popular pressure.

The arrests were seen as proof of Arafat's vulnerability to challenge from any group when he clamps down on those that carry out what are popularly viewed as acts of resistance against Israeli occupation.

But if Arafat proves to be unable to trace the attackers, who reportedly take refuge in the autonomous areas, then he is blamed by the Israelis of violating the agreement or at least of not doing enough - as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin recently charged.

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