Trading Terror for Talk Splits Militants on Israel
Islamic group Hamas divided over role in election and use of terror
THE Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has demonstrated its power to delay the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with suicide bombings, is becoming increasingly fractured between moderate members and radicals aligned to the group's military wing.Skip to next paragraph
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Debate has intensified between Hamas leaders favoring a form of participation in Palestinian elections and hard-liners advocating more violence against Israel since the January bombing near Tel Aviv that killed 21 Israelis, Palestinian and Israeli analysts say.
The calm broke last week when gunmen killed two Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron, and Israeli police discovered a huge cache of explosives being smuggled out of Gaza for a suicide-bombing mission in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.
Hamas activists appear to be responsible for both of the attacks.
The division between Hamas moderates and hard-liners runs through the organization's political leadership, which includes spiritual leaders, academics, and professionals in Gaza and West Bank towns.
But the real power of the organization, according to insiders, still lies with the semiautonomous military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam, which operates in underground units within Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in towns such as Nablus.
Military leaders, insiders say, have made it clear to the moderate political leaders pursuing dialogue that they will strike with a vengeance if the moderates marginalize them by switching Hamas strategy from one of violence to dialogue.
Two factors are key to political fluidity within Hamas leadership: first is the sustained and intensifying crackdown by the Palestinian police on Islamic militants.
Militant Islamic leaders concede that the campaign by Palestinian police can no longer be described as cosmetic and has forced organizations like Hamas to review their strategy.
Following a meeting with US Vice President Al Gore on Friday in the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat vowed ''to deal with those who threaten the peace process.''
Security courts take on militants
Mr. Arafat cited the recent creation of police-run security courts as one of the measures taken to curb Islamic militants trying to wreck the Israeli-PLO peace deal.
As Arafat's Palestinian police continued to arrest and question suspected Islamic extremists over the weekend, Western diplomats said that the first prosecutions of Islamic militants through security courts could begin within the next two weeks.
The second factor forcing a rethinking within Hamas ranks is the prospect of Palestinians holding elections before the end of the year.
One faction within the Hamas leadership believes that Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), his self-appointed body charged with implementing limited self-rule, has been weakened to the point where Hamas could benefit from entering the contest for political power by making overtures to the Israelis.
The natural channel for such contacts, which are as controversial within Hamas as they are within the Israeli government, would be the Islamic Movement in Israel, which has had several contacts with senior Israeli officials in recent months.