Rivals Arafat and Hamas Edge Toward Partnership

The editor of Al-Wattan, the newspaper of the Islamic militant group Hamas, found himself out of a job last year when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat slammed the paper's doors as part of a crackdown on Muslim extremists.

Now, Ghazi Hamad is back in business as managing editor of the two-month-old Al-Risala, the official paper of the Islamic Salvation Party, a Hamas offshoot.

The reemergence of an Islamic "opposition" paper is one of many signs that Mr. Arafat has recently invited Muslim guerrilla organizations opposed to the peace process back into the Palestinian political fold. Whether Arafat gave Hamas what Israeli leaders say is a "green light" to carry out bombings, like the one that killed three Israeli women in Tel Aviv last week, remains more ambiguous.

What is clear is that many Hamas activists read Arafat's decision to release Islamic militants from jail and break off security cooperation with Israel - while refusing to cut short a support-seeking trip to several Islamic countries in order to quell clashes in the West Bank - as an implicit signal that acts of violence will be seen as within the national interest.

Arafat denies Israel's accusation that he gave a nod to terror following a day of "national reconciliation" that brought mainstream and radical factions together earlier this month. Palestinians dismiss the charges as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to deflect attention from his controversial plans to build in East Jerusalem.

But Hamas members acknowledge that they view the gaps between their agenda and the Palestinian Authority's (PA) as narrowing to a point of negligibility.

"The national dialogue has brought the Palestinian Authority closer to Hamas," says Mr. Hamad, who doubles as Al-Risala's editor and a spokesman for the Hamas movement's political wing. "All the Palestinians feel that they are sailing in one boat, facing one enemy, and we have to be unified against it."

Unlike the wide roundups of suspected Islamic militants after a week of lethal bombings a year ago, there have been no parallel sweeps by Palestinian police.

"I haven't heard of them arresting people since this operation," the wiry-bearded Hamad adds, referring to last Friday's suicide bombing. Having received little more than a perfunctory condemnation by Arafat, Hamas's military wing has threatened additional bombings if bulldozers continue clearing the way for new Israeli homes on land Palestinians claim as the site of their future capital.

Israeli and US officials are warning that the alleged go-ahead from Arafat must be turned into a red light if the peace process is to continue. The PA's top security brass now says that, while it is not orchestrating attacks, it will not suppress militants and act as a "client militia" if Israel continues in what Arabs see as violations of the accords. And members of Arafat's own Fatah party called on Palestinians this week to start a new intifadah against Jewish settlements and settlers.

With clashes in the streets daily, it seems the new uprising has begun. And with Palestinians from both Fatah and Hamas taking part, the movements are acting more like partners than rivals.

Hamas, Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement, has found itself in a very different position from the one it was in this time last year, when Israel's clampdown on the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of Hamas bombings brought about hardships that made some Palestinians resent Hamas. With the peace process crumbling, Hamas has been quick to remind Palestinians that the Islamic opposition has long predicted the demise of the Oslo Accords. It also knows that Arafat would be seen as more concerned with Israeli security than Palestinian nationalism if he were to squelch Hamas.

"It is not in the Palestinian Authority's interest to put all of Hamas in jail," says Dr. Mussa Zaboud, an independent Palestinian councilman from Gaza affiliated with Hamas. "The situation has reached a point where the PA can't control all people, and this is not [their] responsibility."

If there is hope for the peace process, it is that both sides are trying to keep the fighting from spiraling out of control as it did last September, when riots left 80 dead. That, and the imminent arrival of US peace envoy Dennis Ross, seem all that is available to avoid a new era of bloodletting propelled by people who never gave peace a chance.

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