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Buoyed by 'Islamic Spring,' Hamas considers new direction

Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal is stepping down as the militant Palestinian group faces a regional moment of change.

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"Armed resistance is the only way to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine. Seriously, I was astonished when I heard" Mr. Meshal’s comment, said Abu Hassan, a member of the Al Qassam military wing in the Gaza Strip. "I really don’t know what is wrong with Hamas…. Many Hamas Qassam commanders will oppose this idea."

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Despite the struggles with ideology, Hamas leaders believe that the winds of regional change are at their back as the spread of elections empowers political Islam. They see parallels to their own history: Hamas rose to political prominence among the Palestinians in democratic elections six years ago, capturing a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament by channeling popular fatigue with an old guard who were willing to deal with the West. 

The recent elections in Egypt gave the Muslim Brotherhood nearly half the seats in the next parliament there, a democratic mandate that is likely to translate into a much more friendly environment for Hamas there compared to the open enmity of former President Hosni Mubarak.

"We as Palestinians paid the price for the Arab dictatorship," says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson in the Gaza Strip. "We believe that this result of the democratic process might mean full support for Palestinian rights and interest, now that [Arab governments’] hearts are with the people."

A Palestinian poll last month found that the approval rating of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip rose 7 percentage points to 41 percent from three months earlier. That said, the Islamic militant party still polls second to the secular Fatah party when Palestinians ask about their electoral preferences.

Elections coming soon

The improved public standing of Hamas has given a push to talks aimed at ending a four-and-a-half-year rift with Fatah. Hamas and Fatah have agreed in principle to holding elections in May of this year, and the sides are discussing confidence building measures like a prisoner release. Still, there’s been little progress on implementation.

Hamas legislator Bassem Zarir contends that the success of Islamic parties elsewhere have given Hamas new international prestige. He claims that European diplomats have sought him out for the first time to pick his brain about Hamas' links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We are stronger than at any other time," he boasts.

That sense of momentum has filtered down to the streets of the West Bank, where small groups of Hamas supporters have organized demonstrations calling for the release of Islamists in PA prisons.

A year ago Hamas supporters wouldn’t have dared to hold a public protest in the West Bank for fear of arrest by the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the rival Fatah party. But on a recent day, a group of about two dozen Islamist women – wearing green sashes and their faces covered – protested in the central square of Hebron to accuse the PA of holding political prisoners.

"Our feeling is that what is going on in the Arab Spring is in our favor," says Lama Khater, a 34-year old Islamist journalist who comes out to weekly demonstrations. "It has pushed us to come out."

A balancing act 

That said, the protest turnout at the Hebron city square was modest, a sobering sign that most Islamist backers still fear of a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority security services.

Whether or not political Islam is able to continue to gain momentum among Palestinians may depend on a balancing act between Mehsal’s new efforts at moderation and reaffirming its long held hard-line ideology that sets it apart from Abbas and Fatah.

"We haven’t reached [Fatah’s] level," says legislator Zarir. "We appreciate this flexibility and are happy about it ... as long as it doesn’t infringe on our basic principles."

Ahmed Aldabba contributed reporting from Gaza City, Gaza.

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