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Hamas refashions its militancy

The Palestinian group has not claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Israel since taking over Gaza in June.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 22, 2007



Tel Aviv

There was a time when the killing of six Hamas gunmen, which Israel said it did Monday in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip, would have propelled the Islamic militants to unleash a barrage of rockets into southern Israel.

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But despite angry vows of revenge, Hamas continued to uphold Tuesday an undeclared policy, established after its takeover of Gaza in June, of limiting rocket attacks on Israel.

At a time when Hamas is trying to consolidate power and show the world it can rule responsibly since bringing to a violent end the unity government with rival Fatah, it is being careful to keep its fight against what it calls "the Zionist enemy" on a low flame of rhetoric and lower-impact mortar fire.

"If we analyze Hamas's resistance in the Gaza Strip, we could say it was not for the sake of resistance of the [Israeli] occupation in the Gaza Strip, it was for political goals," says Saud Abu Ramadan, a Gaza-based journalist and political observer.

"They say in their official statements that they sing songs of resistance, but they have been acting otherwise. The political meaning of firing a short-range mortar shell at a border crossing is nothing because the world is not going to talk about it," he says.

Three more Palestinians, members of the militant group Islamic Jihad, were killed in southern Gaza Tuesday by Israeli aircraft, according to Israel's army, which said the men were seen operating near an Israeli border fence. The army said it killed the six members of Hamas only after the men were seen firing rockets into Israel.

In the past two months, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) counted 110 rocket attacks and 170 mortar attacks into Israel. Even if most of the attacks are being carried out by militant groups other than Hamas, such as Islamic Jihad, Israel's army says it will hold Hamas responsible.

Though many observers argue that Hamas's political agenda dictates different behavior from its days as underground opposition to the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel's army continues to see Hamas as a group driven by an extremist agenda. Still, a military spokesperson acknowledged that Hamas has recently resisted the kind of sustained barrages on Israeli cities that provoked escalations in the past.

"It's a matter of interests. The interest of Hamas now is to show the world stability inside Gaza. But the stability is only visible on the outside," says Maj. Avital Leibovich. "Take Gaza as a metaphor for something that is [being] wrapped up. When you take off the wrapping, you see something different."

But since June, Hamas has defied expectations by restoring a measure of law and order to the streets of Gaza for the first time in years – an achievement that has helped boost its approval rating among Palestinians from 18 percent in July to 23 percent this month, according to the Ramallah survey group Near East Consulting.

Any escalation of violence could complicate Hamas's effort to convince the international community that it should be accepted as an interlocutor on behalf of the Palestinians.

"No political process can take place without involving the party which represents a major force in Palestinian society," wrote Ahmed Yousef, the political adviser to former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in an op-ed in the daily newspaper Al-Quds. "The way that the international community deals with Hamas decides the way the Islamists deal with the West, either in the shape of coexistence in the shape of confrontation."

Now that Hamas is in power, experts say, the Islamists want to strike a contrast with rivals from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, which is perceived by many Palestinians as trading the cause of the struggle against Israel for government jobs. "They are becoming politically smarter," says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Meir Javedanfar. He is a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst.]

"[Hamas is] using the armed struggle as a means to an end. They are using it as a tool to show the Palestinian people that, unlike other political parties in power, they don't change their stripes so easily. At the same time, they're not letting the armed struggle take over the main goal of the organization, which is providing security for their people and providing social and economic services."

That has been a tall order. With major commercial crossings to Israel shut for two months, thousands of Palestinians in the private sector have found themselves without work. In recent days, electricity to tens of thousands of Gazans has been interrupted, since the European Union held up payment for the fuel for power generators in Gaza. The power outage has forced many Gazans to resort to electric generators.

"They have to show that they are able to succeed, otherwise people will say, 'Why did they take over Gaza if they don't have the ability to manage?' " said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst. "Hamas can launch 80 rockets in two hours. But they are being intelligent. They have other challenges."

Hamas is believed to be waiting for an opportunity to renew talks on a new compromise with Fatah. Stabilizing the Gaza Strip would put Hamas in a strong position in those negotiations, analysts say.

The prevailing view of Hamas's long-term strategy among Israeli officials and analysts is a bit a more pessimistic. Many say that in addition to stabilizing Gaza, Hamas also is looking to build up its military capabilities in the hopes it can one day repeat the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizbullah's battlefield draw against the Israeli army in last summer's Lebanon war – a result that would burnish its reputation in the Arab world.

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