Arafat's New Task: Mend Rift

'Who killed Muhi ed-Din el-Sharif?' sows discord among Palestinians in Israel.

Two years ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tried a new strategy on his competitors from the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas: If you can't beat them, get them to join you.

That's when Mr. Arafat lured prominent Hamas spokesman and newspaper publisher Imad Faluji into a job as minister of post and communications. The goal: Mend fences with Hamas, and draw the Islamists out of the bombing business and into politics as a legitimate party.

"We want a positive relationship with Hamas," Mr. Faluji says in an interview in his large salon, a frequent meeting place for Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials. "That is my job. I'm the bridge between the sides."

But that bridge is looking rickety in the aftermath of the assassination last month of Hamas's head bombmaker in Ramallah.

Finger-pointing in the wake of that incident threatens to escalate infighting among Palestinians at a time when Arafat needs to keep militants in check to gain ground in the long-stalled peace process with Israel.

Visits by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross this week hold out some hope of a breakthrough. Yesterday in Gaza, Mr. Blair sought support for a summit next month in London. But ripples from the bombmaker case may be hard to quell.

It still remains unclear who killed Muhi ed-Din el-Sharif, but it is certain that he was shot and killed hours before his body was placed next to a car that was then blown up. After initially blaming Israel, Arafat's investigators pointed instead to an inside job by Hamas members.

Hamas still insists Israel carried out the killing, possibly with the help of Palestinian collaborators or even the PA. Israel maintains it had no part at all in the deed, though Mr. Sharif did top their most-wanted list for orchestrating several suicide bombings.

If Sharif was shot by someone within Hamas, it holds out the danger of a hard-line faction splitting off from relatively moderate forces in the organization. That could spell more violence if a maverick splinter group decides to use more bombing attacks.

The strain also puts Arafat in a difficult position with Palestinians who oppose a crackdown on Hamas, because even those who aren't in the organization feel it harms national unity.

At the same time, the new tensions could place Arafat in a better light with the Israelis because scores of Hamas members have been arrested in recent weeks - something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded as a precondition to making several overdue troop withdrawals in the West Bank.

Some Palestinian sources suggest that Sharif was shot by other Hamas members because he did not want to continue building bombs. That dispute mirrors a larger debate that goes on quietly between Hamas members who favor as many attacks on Israel as possible and those who think that such acts only serve to hurt their own, as in the travel closures following bombings that devastate the Palestinian economy.

The investigation is still going on. Faluji says that if it does conclude that the murder was an internal assassination, that would harm Hamas's good image among some Palestinians - and could foretell unchecked terrorism.

"If that's true, it's a very dangerous curve for Hamas," he says. "Hamas is a movement now ... you can talk to them. The danger is if a group splits off from Hamas and works underground, they have no leader and no address."

He compared it to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from which an extremist faction broke off to form the Islamic Group. It was responsible for the killing of 58 tourists in Luxor last November. "That's why they have operations there now that cannot be contained," he says.

Hamas leaders also have much at stake. Many Palestinians were attracted to Hamas by its domestic image as a morally upright organization - despite its targeting of random Israeli civilians - while Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has a reputation among some for corruption and conflict.

Some reports hint the killing could have been part of a power struggle, possibly involving a money dispute that would tarnish Hamas's image as holy warriors.

"The Palestinian people can't tolerate internal killing," Faluji explains. "How did the PLO lose the support of some of its people? When it started splitting from each other. The strength of Hamas is its unity."

The rancor leaves Faluji trying to mediate and bring Hamas to face the possibility that the killing was internal. To that end, he called a meeting last week and let Hamas leaders view the evidence the PA has collected so far.

"We allowed Hamas to come and listen to the [taped] confessions and to share in the investigation," says Faluji, expressing frustration with former comrades in Hamas. "They've been given more freedom to act as an opposition than in any other Arab country."

Not everyone appreciates that. And though Faluji says he hasn't left Hamas ideologically, Ismail Abu Shenab, one of Gaza's top Hamas leaders, says Faluji is no longer one of them. According to Mr. Abu Shenab, the dialogue set up between the PLO and Hamas has had no impact in reconciling their differences.

The disagreement over Sharif might drive an even wider wedge between them because the PA, he says, is trying to cover up an Israeli operation.

"Sharif has been assassinated, and everybody knows that the only party interested in this is the Israeli intelligence services," says Abu Shenab. Changing explanations of the events, he says, show that the PA is "fabricating stories to say that it is not the responsibility of the Israelis."

Similar accusations against the PA by Hamas sent Hamas spokesman Abdul Aziz Rantissi to jail, as well as scores of lower-level activists. The roundups won a nod of approval from Israel.

Palestinian analysts say that while Arafat will tell the public that he wants cooperation with Hamas, in diplomatic back rooms he will be able to tell Israeli and American officials that he is waging war on terror.

But if he goes along with Israeli demands to turn Hamas into an outlaw group, observers say he runs the risk of being accused of creating fitna - a term from the Koran referring to the internecine strife that precedes civil war and is considered reprehensible.

"The word fitna itself is dangerous," says Diab Nemer Allouh, who represents Fatah, Arafat's political party, in talks with Hamas and other factions. "That won't happen here. Hamas just needs to be practical and ... not go on saying that these things don't happen. It's not unheard of that a friend kills his friend and a brother kills his brother."

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