AN escalation of violence against Israel by the militant Islamic group Hamas is threatening to widen the conflict between Palestinians and jeopardizes the peace process.
Recent attacks by Hamas reflect the frustrations of many Palestinians over the slow implementation of self-rule in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, as well as a perception that the new Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Yasser Arafat is increasingly influenced by Israel.
``The escalation of violence has proven that setting up the PA under Israeli occupation is futile and even detrimental to the cause of achieving a viable peace,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, a Palestinian activist.
The Israeli Cabinet yesterday approved sealing off indefinitedly the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a crackdown on Hamas. The measure will keep tens of thousands of Palestinians from jobs in Israel.
And Police Minister Moshe Shahal requested 1,500 new police officers to control radical Palestinians. Israeli officials also are weighing tough antiterrorist measures, such as wrecking the homes of Hamas activists.
The crisis highlights anew the daunting tasks facing Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Arafat. He must bring Hamas into both the PA and planned elections, while trying to unite Palestinians behind the PA. And he must meet Israel's demands for halting Hamas's violent attacks without becoming what many Palestinians call ``a tool'' of the Israelis.
``Mr. Arafat is torn between his own constituency and his determination to keep the peace process alive and not give reason for Israel to take total control again,'' a PA official says.
Arafat's advisers, most of whom are very unpopular among the Palestinian populace, are divided over what to do. Arafat's mainstream Fatah Palestinian faction strongly opposes a confrontation with Hamas, according to officials close to Arafat.
Palestinian analysts and even some PA members believe that a clampdown on Hamas will not necessarily stop the violence and expect frustration reflected in extremist Palestinian attacks to become a daily problem for Israel.
Some Palestinians contend that Hamas' threats require swifter moves toward more Palestinian autonomy. ``What is needed is the withdrawal of Israeli troops and not a redeployment,'' Mahdi Abdel-Hadi, president of a Jerusalem-based Palestinian think tank said. ``What is needed is genuine Palestinian elections and not a mediocre game of elections that is dictated by Israel,'' referring to the stalemate in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians over terms of Palestinian elections and the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and parts of Gaza.
Caution on showdown with Hamas
Palestinian leaders say that the PA should avoid a showdown with Hamas, since such a confrontation could reduce the PA into an Israeli tool in the eyes of the majority of the Palestinians who want an end to Israeli occupation.
``As long as the Palestinian leadership remains in Gaza it will be seen to be controlled by Israel and will have no credibility. The Palestinian leadership should move back to [its former base in] Tunisia and not come here until it can operate freely,'' Mr. Khatib, a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team said.
In the view of many Palestinians, the seeds for violence were contained in the terms of the original PLO-Israeli agreements, both the Declaration of Principles signed in Washington on Sept. 13, 1993, and the Cairo agreement of May 4, 1994.
According to Dr. Abdel-Shafi, the agreements did not put an end to the Israeli policies that ``are still based on military prowess rather than international resolutions and laws.
``There is no doubt that Hamas's ideology, which advocates violence, is one reason behind the recent escalation. Yet the increasing violence is also a response to the Israeli occupation policy that is in itself an invitation to violence,'' Abdel-Shafi says.
Hamas wants leadership role
Hamas, the strongest opposition Palestinian group, has been exploiting the erosion of the PA credibility to assert its role as an alternative representative of the Palestinian people.
The militant Islamic movement, which sprouted shortly after the Palestinian uprising in 1987, appeared to be winning public support - especially after its kidnapping of an Israeli soldier last week, who was later killed along with his abductors during a failed Israeli rescue attempt.
Hamas had demanded the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - something Arafat has failed to achieve through negotiations.
But Wednesday's bomb attack on a Tel Aviv bus that killed 22 may end up hurting Hamas. Many Palestinians oppose killing Israeli civilians and believe that such attacks provide Israel with a pretext to close off the territories.
And analysts do not think that the PLO, which remains the moving force in the PA, is losing legitimacy to Hamas. There is serious concern, however, that the PLO, which has had the strongest influence in the West Bank and Gaza for more than two decades, will lose control over the Palestinians, creating a serious political vacuum.
``The Palestinian public no longer feels that it has much to defend,'' says Haider Abdel-Shafi, former head of the Palestinian negotiating delegation. ``The peace process lacks credibility, while such Hamas operations are extremely counterproductive.''
Hamas leaders have maintained an unusual silence, giving way to speculation that differences between the political and military wings of the movement have risen.
The political wing of the movement was considering participation in the elections and in the major departments of the PA.