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From Israeli jails, Hamas activists press middle way

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2006



TEL AVIV

A rarely seen Hamas faction is emerging as an unlikely moderate and influential force within the Islamic militant party now running the Palestinian Authority.

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A group of Hamas members who are imprisoned within Israeli jails have become a counterweight to colleagues in Gaza as the political players capable of bridging the rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas over how to share power and avoid a civil war.

Tuesday, they called on Hamas to endorse a document reached between Hamas and Fatah prisoners that would effectively recognize the Jewish state, a decision that would contradict the militant's charter and one Mr. Abbas said they would have to make by early next week.

In an uncharacteristically feisty speech last week, Abbas said that if Hamas didn't accept the prisoners' "national conciliation" accord that advocates a two-state solution, he would take it to the public in a referendum.

On Monday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar rejected the idea of a referendum as a waste of time and money, the Associated Press reported. Others within the organization have even questioned whether the Hamas prisoners' endorsement of the two-state solution was genuine.

The Hamas prisoners' statement "has political and nationalist weight," says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst. "When people who are prisoners make a statement, it resonates because they are people who have worked hard, and they are paying with their lives. You can't argue about the political purity of these guys in jail. They aren't in anyone's political pocket."

In an interview with the Palestinian Al-Kuds newspaper published Tuesday, Hamas prisoner leader Sheikh Abdel Nasser Issa insisted that the prisoners' accord was a genuine expression of the Islamist prisoners and should be adopted by the Islamic militants outside Israeli jails. "We are hoping it will be considered a comprehensive agreement and will get the support of everyone," said Mr. Issa, who is serving consecutive life sentences.

"Nobody should exploit this document and say that it represents one person or one organization," he said.

Hamas is expected to do everything in their power to avoid a referendum on the prisoners' document, which risks a public rebuke of their ideology of refusing to recognize Israel, analysts say.

A two-month-old survey taken by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki on the eve of the inauguration of the Hamas government found that two-thirds of Palestinians support mutual recognition with Israel and a two-state solution. Some 75 percent wanted Hamas to negotiate with Israel.

"This is their Achilles' heel," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East export at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "Hamas realizes that they weren't elected for their ideology, and most likely such a referendum would pass."

Tuesday, some 400 civil servants demonstrated outside Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's Ramallah office, clanging on pots and shouting "we need a program.''

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