Trading Terror for Talk Splits Militants on Israel

Islamic group Hamas divided over role in election and use of terror

THE Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has demonstrated its power to delay the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with suicide bombings, is becoming increasingly fractured between moderate members and radicals aligned to the group's military wing.

Debate has intensified between Hamas leaders favoring a form of participation in Palestinian elections and hard-liners advocating more violence against Israel since the January bombing near Tel Aviv that killed 21 Israelis, Palestinian and Israeli analysts say.

The calm broke last week when gunmen killed two Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron, and Israeli police discovered a huge cache of explosives being smuggled out of Gaza for a suicide-bombing mission in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.

Hamas activists appear to be responsible for both of the attacks.

The division between Hamas moderates and hard-liners runs through the organization's political leadership, which includes spiritual leaders, academics, and professionals in Gaza and West Bank towns.

But the real power of the organization, according to insiders, still lies with the semiautonomous military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam, which operates in underground units within Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in towns such as Nablus.

Military leaders, insiders say, have made it clear to the moderate political leaders pursuing dialogue that they will strike with a vengeance if the moderates marginalize them by switching Hamas strategy from one of violence to dialogue.

Two factors are key to political fluidity within Hamas leadership: first is the sustained and intensifying crackdown by the Palestinian police on Islamic militants.

Militant Islamic leaders concede that the campaign by Palestinian police can no longer be described as cosmetic and has forced organizations like Hamas to review their strategy.

Following a meeting with US Vice President Al Gore on Friday in the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat vowed ''to deal with those who threaten the peace process.''

Security courts take on militants

Mr. Arafat cited the recent creation of police-run security courts as one of the measures taken to curb Islamic militants trying to wreck the Israeli-PLO peace deal.

As Arafat's Palestinian police continued to arrest and question suspected Islamic extremists over the weekend, Western diplomats said that the first prosecutions of Islamic militants through security courts could begin within the next two weeks.

The second factor forcing a rethinking within Hamas ranks is the prospect of Palestinians holding elections before the end of the year.

One faction within the Hamas leadership believes that Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), his self-appointed body charged with implementing limited self-rule, has been weakened to the point where Hamas could benefit from entering the contest for political power by making overtures to the Israelis.

The natural channel for such contacts, which are as controversial within Hamas as they are within the Israeli government, would be the Islamic Movement in Israel, which has had several contacts with senior Israeli officials in recent months.

The Islamic Movement, a social religious group within Israel that identifies with Islamic fundamentalism but rejects violence, is considering fielding candidates for the Knesset in the Israeli elections scheduled to take place in November next year. It is estimated that a political list of candidates headed by the Islamic Movement could win up to 45 percent of the Israeli Arab vote.

Professor Iyyad Barghouti, a political scientist at Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, says Israel is signaling it has adopted a pragmatic approach toward the Islamists in the belief that the power of Arafat's PA is waning.

He notes that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and other senior Israeli officials, have recently held talks with the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel and that these contacts could be a prelude to the first contacts between Israeli officials and Hamas. ''I think the Israelis are looking to make contacts with Hamas, and some Hamas leaders are not opposed to such contacts.''

Imad Falloji, a Hamas leader in Gaza who appears to straddle both the moderate and radical factions within the organization, says that Hamas is currently undergoing a period of stocktaking.

He says that the relative calm of the past few months should not be mistaken as a sign of weakness. ''It is a stage of preparation and construction by the Islamic movement to prepare for the future,'' says Mr. Falloji, publisher of the Gaza-based pro-Hamas newspaper al-Watan. ''The calm will continue as long as the Islamic movement is not targeted.''

But Falloji adds that suicide bombings and other attacks will not end as long as Jewish settlements and Israeli soldiers remain in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

''These kinds of things will stop when the Islamic movement achieves its goals'' Falloji says.

But some Hamas leaders appear ready to compromise on their long-term goal of an Islamic state in all of Israel and Palestine by taking part in negotiations for an interim solution resulting in the withdrawal of Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

''A withdrawal by the Israelis would not be a final solution, but it would stabilize the situation for a while,'' Falloji says.

Avoiding confrontation

He says Hamas wants to avoid a direct confrontation with Arafat's PA and that the organization's strategy is to let people see for themselves the mistakes and inadequacy of the PA.

''We had two options: One was to confront the PA, which could have caused civil war,'' he says. ''The other was to give them a chance to implement the agreement and see what the Palestinian people thought of it. We chose the second option.''

Falloji says Hamas opposes Palestinian elections held within the framework of the Israeli-PLO accord but reiterates the Hamas call for a referendum on the accord among all Palestinians.

Palestinian and Israeli analysts say Hamas's rhetorical rejection of Palestinian elections does not exclude the possibility of Hamas backing individual candidates without participating formally as a group. Hamas has always pursued a dual political and military strategy.

''There are crucial issues on the agenda for Hamas,'' says Anat Kurz of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

''Hamas leaders must decide where to go,'' she says. ''One group will go with the election, and the other group will oppose this and recommend a more militant way.''

Ms. Kurz adds, ''Hamas is not a monolithic organization in any way.''

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