Palestinian factions may curb intifada

Hamas and Fatah are set to meet, raising hopes for less violence in Israel.

Representatives of the two main Palestinian factions are preparing for meetings in Cairo in the coming days that could yield a common political agenda, including a renunciation of terrorist attacks inside Israel.

Mainly at Egypt's instigation, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian group founded by Yasser Arafat, are contemplating forging a united front, along with other, smaller factions. The two main parties have long been at odds, with Hamas demanding Israel's destruction and Fatah favoring a peace deal.

A statement of common goals that would end certain kinds of attacks on Israel, if it indeed emerges from the Cairo talks, could alter the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, according to Palestinian, Israeli, and diplomatic observers.

For one thing, the Palestinians might achieve a more practical sort of unity, rather than straining to cover divergent tactics and objectives with the appearance of indivisibility.

If the Palestinians do stop attacks within Israel proper - as opposed to strikes against Israelis in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might face greater political pressure to step back from his hardline tactics and negotiate.

An earlier round of Fatah-Hamas talks, held in Cairo in mid-November, failed to produce an agreement. That is only one of several reasons for skepticism about the current effort.

"I'm delighted to be convinced that it's going to be very important," says a Western diplomat who requested anonymity. "But at the moment I remain to be convinced."

A senior Israeli official says a no-attacks-inside-Israel cease-fire should be seen as a "tactical" maneuver, arguing that the Palestinians are hoping to forestall the effects of Mr. Sharon's likely re-emergence as prime minister following elections in January and a possible US-led attack against Iraq. He says the Palestinians are also tiring of Israel's sustained military pressure against them, including the steady "elimination" of Palestinian militants and leaders.

"Hamas is really playing the 'yes, but' game we're all so familiar with," the Israeli official says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab says he does not expect his party to agree to any cease-fire, without a concomitant step from Israel. This week Sharon said his forces would continue killing Palestinian militants suspected of planning attacks against Israeli targets.

Others are more confidant that the Palestinian parties will announce a limited cease-fire, perhaps one lasting 90 days. "Some sort of cease-fire is sort of agreed upon," says a Western observer who is following the negotiations.

"Within a week," Sakher Habash, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, said on Monday, "I think [Hamas] is going to yield."

The political agreement is perhaps more elusive, since it calls into question the basic strategies of the Palestinian groups. Hamas, for instance, formally rejects the existence of Israel and says historical Palestine must be "liberated" from Israeli control.

Informally, there are signs of a shift within Hamas toward de facto acceptance of Israel. Mr. Abu Shanab, a US-trained engineer who is considered one of the group's more moderate faces, says Hamas could accept a "long-term truce" based on Israel's withdrawal to the borders it maintained on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Articulating such a goal might allow a greater sense of common cause with Fatah, which backs a two-state solution, but it would not appear to meet Israel's demand for an end to the conflict - never mind disagreements over borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.

"I think they're serious about getting a Palestinian state," says the Western observer, referring to Hamas. "I think they've seen the vulnerability of the people and what's needed to protect them."

Palestinians as a whole are increasingly disillusioned with the conflict and its lack of positive gains - a popular sense that may be feeding Hamas's willingness to re-assess both goals and tactics.

While few Palestinians criticize attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a growing number are convinced that suicide-bombing attacks against Israeli civilians are counterproductive. Israel's retaliation is often severe.

"If we can prevent attacks inside Israel," says Mr. Habash, the Fatah central committee member, "we are protecting our people, not Israelis." Fatah's goal for engaging in talks with Hamas is essentially political, since the establishment of a united front would make it harder for the Islamic party to criticize Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.

Some Palestinians hope that a united front and a limited cease-fire will show the world that they interested in a peaceful settlement and against terrorism.

The Palestinians may be deluding themselves about whether they can regain any moral high ground with a limited cease-fire, observers say. If Palestinian militants continue attacking civilian settlers in the West Bank, they will doubtless continued to be seen as terrorists.

Bassam Abu Sharif, a longtime aide to Mr. Arafat, says a cease-fire, provided it is not scuttled by aggressive actions by either side, will allow Palestinians to "test the intentions" of both Israel and the US.

Much "depends on the Americans," Abu Sharif continues, and whether the US is sincere about reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process. As it is, some US partners are acting as if they doubt US willingness to shepherd peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egypt has put together the Fatah-Hamas talks mainly on its own; the British government is convening its own meeting in mid-January to discuss Palestinian security and political reform.

In the face of American inaction - the US recently delayed the announcement of a "road map" toward peace, citing the Israeli elections - Britain "is trying to convince [people] that there is still something to do," says the Western diplomat.

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