RAFAH, GAZA STRIP — IN recent days, progress toward peace between Israel and Palestinians has come to depend on a balancing act by Yasser Arafat.
The newly elected Palestinian president is trying to juggle pressure from Islamic militants set on retaliatory violence against Israel with the almost-routine assassinations of militant Palestinians by Israeli agents.
The eye-for-an-eye violence is jeopardizing Mr. Arafat's efforts, intensified since his success in the historic Jan. 20 Palestinian elections, to bring moderates of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, into the peace process.
But Hamas political leaders are reluctant to fully promise an end to suicide-bombing attacks against Israelis by the Hamas military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam. Each time Hamas has gotten close to an accord with Arafat, another Islamic activist is assassinated. Then Hamas militants threaten to reignite a vicious cycle of revenge, that itself creates a political climate against compromise.
This Catch-22 is due to the complex makeup of the anti-Israel Palestinian groups: Relative moderates are based in Gaza and West Bank; more militant but less accountable leaders live in neighboring countries like Jordan; and a radical military wing, skeptical of Hamas's dialogue with Arafat and the peace pact with Israel, remains underground.
In the past few days, top-level talks between Palestinian officials leaders and Hamas have led to the release of more than a dozen Hamas prisoners from Palestinian jails, the creation of two joint committees, and the opening a newspaper and political information office by Hamas in Gaza. And Hamas has indicated that it will take part in municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank scheduled for May.
But there is a dark cloud hanging over this progress: the fear that Hamas's military wing will strike against Israel to avenge the Jan. 5 assassination of Yehiya Ayyash, ''the engineer'' who masterminded Hamas's suicide bombings against Israel.
Both Hamas and Palestinian officials argue that Israeli actions against suspected terrorists - particularly the assassination of leaders of the Islamic resistance - are sabotaging their efforts to move closer together and reach a lasting peace.
These types of assassinations have occurred four times over the past 15 months: First, Hamas activist Kamal Kheil, and four others, died in a bomb explosion in Gaza City last April. Arafat's Palestinian police claimed this was an accident in a Hamas bombmaking factory, but Hamas claimed Israeli agents perpetrated the attack.
Last October, just as Israel began transferring authority to Palestinians in six major West Bank towns, suspected Israeli secret service agents gunned down the Damascus-based Islamic Jihad leader in Malta. Then Islamic Jihad editor Hani Abed was assassinated in Gaza last November. And just two weeks before the Palestinian elections, suspected Israeli agents assassinated Ayyash in Gaza.
Israel has not denied claims that its agents were involved in the deaths and welcomed the deaths of the four men.
But ''the timing of assassinations is operational and nothing to do with politics,'' says Israeli historian Benny Morris. ''Once the prime minister has given his approval, it is up to the Shin Bet [Israeli secret service] to decide the timing of an assassination.''
Israel argues that if the Palestinian security fails to heed its requests to capture wanted terrorists and hand them over to the Israelis, then Israel has no option but to seek other methods to achieve its ends.
Hamas political leaders say that they cannot stop a revenge attack.
''It is only the brigades of Izzadin al-Qassam that can decide whether to avenge the death of Yehiya Ayyash,'' says Sheikh Sayed Abu Musameh, a Hamas leader who headed the delegation from Gaza and the West Bank at talks with Palestinian officials in Cairo in December. ''Such an act would be the expression of the feeling of the people, but we are still committed to the agreement reached in Cairo last month.''
That agreement included a promise by Hamas leaders not to do anything to ''embarrass'' Arafat. This was widely interpreted as a de facto cease-fire against the Israelis. And Hamas has not committed any attacks on Israelis since last August.
But one activist close to the military wing, who insisted on being interviewed in a moving vehicle, predicted that a revenge attack would take place soon. ''The Qassam is getting ready to hit the Israelis in the heart with the same pain as Israel inflicted on Palestinians with the death of Ayyash,'' says the man using the name Nimr.
He says that the Hamas military wing is not bound by the promise of Hamas political leaders to halt attacks against Israelis.
But Hamas political leader Abu Musameh told the Monitor in a safe house in this crowded Palestinian town on the Egyptian border that Hamas will do everything in its power to uphold the agreement.
Abu Musameh says, however, it is clear from the assassination of Ayyash and the other Islamic activists that Israel is trying to prevent a rapprochement between Hamas and Palestinian officials.
''Every time Hamas and the [officials] tried to reach a common understanding, Israel intervenes to prevent this from happening,'' he says. ''[The assassinations] all happened at critical moments of the process.''
Col. Rashid Abu Shabag, deputy head of the Palestinians' major intelligence wing known as Preventative Security, agrees that Israel appears bent on preventing a comprehensive accord between Palestinian officials and Hamas.
''During the past seven or eight months, we have reached a sort of agreement with Hamas that has prevented any attacks against Israelis in Israel or even on the West Bank and Gaza,'' Colonel Shabag told the Monitor in the near-completed Preventative Security headquarters in Gaza City.
Security forces cooperate
Shabag adds that the Palestinian security has prevented several attacks against Israelis through its investigations in Gaza.
He did not dispute a claim by the outgoing head of the Israeli Secret Service, Shin Bet, that the Palestinian Security services had helped prevent about 80 planned attacks against Israel.
But Nimr, the Hamas activist close to Izzadin al-Qassam, says it is clear the Palestinian intelligence services and Israel are cooperating.
Israeli Col. Yacov Michael, commander of a joint Israeli-Palestinian patrol office near the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif in Gaza, told the Monitor that the two sides are already carrying out joint ambushes based on shared intelligence.
''There is cooperation between the intelligence authorities on both sides,'' he says. ''We sometimes carry out common operations based on that intelligence.''
Colonel Michael says that the assassination of Ayyash had not affected the atmosphere between him and his Palestinian counterpart. ''I got the feeling that there was a kind of relief among the Palestinian officers when [Ayyash] was killed. He was like a dark cloud hanging over their heads.''
Michael also says he is sure that the dialogue between Palestinian officials and Hamas will continue.