In Popularity Fight, Round 1 to Hamas

High turnout at a demonstration shows group's ability to challenge the authority of Arafat and the PLO

HAMAS, the militant Islamic group responsible for more than a score of Israeli deaths in recent attacks, has established itself as a major force to be reckoned with among Palestinians.

The rise of Hamas as a political force was confirmed by a peaceful demonstration here Saturday, which attracted an estimated 20,000 people.

The show of support for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, has been widely interpreted in political and diplomatic circles as a further indication of the dilemma faced by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat as he tries to walk the middle ground between Israel and Islamic militants.

The underlying conflict between Hamas, which rejects the ailing Israel-PLO peace accord in favor of an Islamic state, and Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), which insists that Hamas must accept its authority, appears to be unresolved after Saturday's peaceful demonstration.

This conflict was underscored in an interview with Sheikh Ahmad Bahr, a senior Hamas leader who led the prayers at the Palestine Mosque Nov. 18, when Palestinian police opened fire on Islamic militants. Fourteen people died and 200 were wounded.

Sheikh Bahr said he hoped that Hamas and the PA could reach a lasting agreement, but he stressed that Hamas was sticking to its view that the PA was responsible for the loss of life at the mosque.

He said Hamas would not serve in the PA - a PLO-dominated body set up to administer limited self-rule - or take part in elections for an autonomy council within the framework of the Israel-PLO accord.

``Hamas would only take part in a free election which was to choose the leaders of the Palestinian people who should then be free to criticize the autonomy deal,'' said Mr. Bahr, one of three Hamas leaders whose homes were shot at by unidentified gunmen last Thursday night.

``If Hamas emerged as the winners of a free election, we would demand our rights in the whole of Palestine and Islamic Jerusalem,'' he said, adding that Hamas rejected the Israel-PLO accord and was in favor of an Islamic state.

``The Jews do not own anything in Palestine. This is Palestinian land. The Jews came from Europe, the United States, and Russia and they pushed us out and uprooted us from our land,'' said Bahr, a Hamas hard-liner.

Following a last-minute agreement between Hamas leaders and the PA, Islamic supporters did not parade weapons at the demonstration and the Palestinian police maintained a low profile.

But a drive-by shooting on a car carrying Israeli settlers south of Hebron yesterday, appeared to indicate that Izzedin al-Qassam, the semi-autonomous military wing of Hamas, had resumed its campaign of violence, which has claimed 31 lives in the past six weeks.

A Jewish settler was killed and at least one other was injured in yesterday's shooting, which bore all the hallmarks of an attack by Islamic militants.

Israeli radio reported that it had received an anonymous call from a member of Izzedin al-Qassam claiming responsiblity and vowing further attacks.

The latest attack is further testimony that the Hamas-PA agreement leading to Saturday's peaceful demonstration will not prove to be a lasting solution to the escalating power struggle between the two Palestinian groups.

``The demonstrations [both by Hamas and an Arafat supporter group] are a kind of public-relations exercise by both sides rather than an easing of tensions,'' said Zakaria Al-Qaq, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.

``Both sides want to show the Palestinian people that they have their welfare at heart by wanting to prevent further bloodshed,'' said Mr. Al-Qaq.

Hamas leaders stopped short of direct verbal attacks on the Palestinian police and some even struck a conciliatory note. But the rhetoric became increasingly militant as the meeting proceeded and Hamas hard-liners drew the most enthusiastic response. ``This is your peace, Arafat,'' Bahr told the crowd. ``It is massacres and assassination.''

The Hamas demonstration was widely seen as a response to earlier demonstrations by Arafat's dominant Fatah PLO faction. Fatah drew an estimated crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people last Monday. It was followed by a similar demonstration in the Palestinian self-rule town of Jericho on the West Bank Wednesday, which drew 3,000 to 5,000 people in the rain.

But Palestinian intellectuals are now questioning the wisdom of Arafat's tactics in encouraging demonstrations to prove his support among rival Palestinian groups. ``I think the Palestinian Authority had made a mistake ... because it creates the impression that the PA is aligning itself with a Palestinian faction rather than with all Palestinians,'' Al-Qaq said.

``If one judges the strength of the two groups according to the demonstrations initiated by Fatah ... then Hamas has won the first round,'' said Al-Qaq. Al-Qaq says he doubts the mere flow of donor money, the focus of an expected joint Palestinian-Israeli appeal in Brussels tomorrow, will be enough to rescue Arafat's waning popularity among Palestinians.

``Whatever Arafat says, he is in a no-win situation. If he is pushed closer to the Israelis and the West, it will undermine his position in relation to the Palestinian people,'' Al-Qaq said.

``The only way forward that I can see for Arafat now is for the PA to organize a summit to seek a reconciliation with all the leaders of the Palestinian people.''

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