HAMAS political leader Mahmoud Zahar was brutally matter-of-fact yesterday, when he heard about the bomb that Hamas members had used to kill five Israelis and injure 21 more in the northern Israeli town of Hadera April 13.
``Izzadeen al-Quassem said there would be five revenge attacks after the massacre in Hebron,'' he says, referring to the armed wing of Hamas, the radical Islamist Palestinian group. ``This is the second.'' A car bomb set off by a Hamas militant on April 6 in Afula killed seven Israelis.
Sitting in his cramped office at Gaza's Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, Dr. Zahar warns Israelis that peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization will not put an end to such attacks. He predicted that the planned autonomous Palestinian police force would not dare hinder them.
Hamas, which opposes the current autonomy negotiations between Israel and the PLO as a sellout of Palestinian interests, claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack. ``It was in retaliation to the Hebron massacre and to prove to the Israelis that the blood of our martyrs will not go ignored,'' says the Hamas representative in Jordan, Mohammed Nazzal.
``Our attacks will not cease until the occupation of our lands is ended,'' adds Hamas official Ibrahim Ghosheh.
That threat posed a direct challenge to the PLO, whose 9,000 policemen are due to assume responsibility for local security in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip under the deal now being negotiated to give Palestinians limited self-rule in those areas.
Hamas militants will defy those policemen to continue their attacks on Israelis, Zahar warns. ``What will the people's reaction be if [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat protects Israel?'' he asks. ``He will be a traitor.''
With PLO officials due to take over the government of Gaza within weeks, Hamas is under pressure to define how its supporters will behave toward the new Palestinian authorities.
Although Hamas, whose name is an acronym for Islamic Resistance, has always condemned even the idea of negotiating with Israel, the organization's leaders now appear to accept that autonomy is a ``fait accompli'' with which they will have to live.
``We will not obstruct it,'' Zahar says. ``But we do not need to. We have believed from the start that this autonomy will not cope with the demands of the people, and it is a matter of time before the people will reject it without any obstruction by us.
``If we can achieve our goals without doing anything, why increase friction between different Palestinian groups?'' he adds.
Hamas is putting its broad support in Gaza behind a four-point strategy, Zahar explains, ``to avoid any conflict with any of the Palestinian factions; to serve the community through all legal methods, such as our institutions and the role of the mosques; not to participate by any means in the autonomy; and to resist the occupation.''
Zahar, who was among the prominent Islamists who founded Hamas in Gaza a decade ago, was careful not to say that his followers would actively resist the autonomy authorities.
Meanwhile, after years of calling for nothing short of the destruction of Israel and the liberation of all territory taken from the Palestinians at Israel's creation in 1948, Hamas appears to be shifting toward the PLO's acceptance of Israel.
``First we have to eliminate the 1967 occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza], then let us choose our representatives according to our will, and we will allow our representatives to talk about recognizing Israel or not,'' Zahar says.
The apparent slackening of Hamas' opposition to the PLO and its autonomy plan, a Western political analyst in Gaza suggests, has as much to do with its assessment of the balance of power under autonomy as with a change of heart.
``Hamas is angling to get under the roof of the Declaration of Principles [the autonomy accord] and to reach an agreement with the PLO,'' he says, ``because they know that if it comes to a fight once Arafat has his police in here, they don't stand a chance. They want to hang on to what they have got,'' such as the Islamic University, the mosques, and Hamas's network of charitable organizations, the analyst says.
BUT Hamas's attitude will depend on the PLO's behavior in power, Zahar cautions. And if Palestinian policemen behave as Israel expects them to under autonomy, cooperating in the fight against those who continue to attack Israeli settlers or troops, Hamas's pledge not to enter into conflict with the PLO will be at odds with its decision to resist the occupation.
``If the Palestinian police implement the policy of the occupation, all honest people will be against them,'' Zahar argues.
If Hamas is seeking to avoid problems with the PLO, across town at the PLO headquarters, Rashid Abu Shebak is also keen to placate Hamas.
Asked how his men would act toward gunmen attacking Israeli targets, he says that, under the PLO's agreement with Israel, ``there will be security arrangements, not security cooperation.''
For now, PLO and Hamas officials say, relations between the two rival groups are good, and meetings between the two sides have kept communications open. Even if Hamas does not expect any favors from the PLO once Mr. Arafat's men take over, at least ``they won't be more aggressive toward us than the Israelis,'' Zahar says.