Missing in Israel poll: Hamas

The Islamic militant group's possible shift of tactics reduces its

The last time Israelis voted for new leaders in 1996, the Jewish state had been rocked by a string of suicide bus bombings carried out by the anti-Israel Islamist group Hamas.

The campaign catchword then was "security," and which candidate could provide it. The violence played a key role in the slim victory of right-wing Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

But as Israelis vote again today - in a contest in which Mr. Netanyahu is trailing Ehud Barak of the Labor Party - security has barely featured in the campaign.

So where is Hamas, and its ideology of destroying the peace process and defeating Israel through violence?

Security forces of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) - with US intelligence help - have cooperated to foil Hamas operations in the past year. Those setbacks have coincided with debate within Hamas about the utility of armed struggle. The result, some argue, is a more pragmatic approach and greater accommodation with Yasser Arafat's PA.

Many Palestinians - in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere in the Middle East - prefer the left-leaning Mr. Barak to be Israel's new prime minister, hoping that he would immediately jump-start the peace process. But Hamas leaders say that neither candidate can give enough on "final status" issues, such as Jerusalem and closing Jewish settlements, to meet minimum Palestinian demands.

The event that signaled Hamas's new approach took place at the PA's Central Council meeting in late April in Gaza. Hamas rank-and-file were surprised to see Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, there. While he spoke strongly against the peace process and warned that the PA should walk away from the 1993-94 Oslo accord, the fact that he was there at all spoke louder. Hamas has refused to attend such meetings for years.

"This was a clear message," Mr. Yassin said in a Monitor interview in Gaza. "I wanted the whole world to know that the Palestinian people can get united in one minute, at any time. You must know that we are not enemies with the PA, but we have different programs and politics."

Despite Yassin's anti-Oslo speech, PA authorities were pleased. Imad al-Falouji, a Palestinian cabinet minister and a former Hamas leader in Gaza, sees promise in the group's foray into the political realm. "I think it's a new policy; it's a good step for the political way."

Yassin denies any shift. Asked if Hamas would maintain the same level of armed resistance, he said: "As long as there is the same level of occupation, yes.... There will come to a time when nobody - Israel or America - will ever stop Hamas from resisting." Other senior Hamas officials and sympathizers have vowed that Hamas will continue its attacks.

But some see Hamas as adding new aspects to its identity. "Hamas is trying successfully to get itself into mainstream Palestinian politics," says Khalid Amayreh, a political analyst from the West Bank town of Hebron. "But that doesn't mean the movement is going to abandon armed struggle, or sacrifice its ideology, or admit that its erstwhile stances have come to nothing."

Sources close to Hamas say that internal debate is well under way, and may have in fact begun years ago. "Hamas is becoming more pragmatic and more open-minded. It feels it should not be isolated," says Ghazi Hamad, a former Hamas leader and editor of Al-Ressallah, a Gaza-based newspaper linked to Hamas. "Some believe you can't solve things with military attacks, so there has been a change in Hamas thinking," Mr. Hamad adds. "Hamas reached many conclusions, and one is no military attacks now."

The process may have begun in August 1995, when Yassin secretly met with several other Hamas leaders and a PA official for eight hours - in the Israeli prison where Yassin was being held. The Israeli aim was to stop a spate of suicide attacks, says Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Yassin had three messages for Hamas, according to Mr. Sourani: that there was one system and one president, the PA and Mr. Arafat; that Hamas rejected the peace process entirely, but that it would work within the system; and that he was "absolutely against" suicide attacks, and that they should stop immediately.

Attacks stopped. But months later, under Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Israeli agents allegedly killed the chief Hamas bombmaker, Yahya Ayyash, known as the "engineer." Seeking revenge, Hamas militants carried out a string of suicide attacks that took dozens of Israeli lives.

Israeli agents provided a new source of revenge last September, allegedly killing two men they called "master terrorists" near Hebron. There were weapons and explosions at the site, and disguises such as wigs and long Orthodox Jewish hair curls. Israeli intelligence officials said that documents found in the house described an elaborate Hamas command center run out of Israeli prisons.

The death of Adel Awadallah - who topped Israel's most-wanted list - and his brother Imad has stung Hamas. It vowed to shake Israel "like an earthquake" in revenge, but so far there has been little sign of that. "This is a real setback for Hamas, that they didn't react," says Sourani. "It affected their street credibility."

But things have changed since Hamas avenged the death of the "engineer," says Yassin. "This is true. You cannot compare."

As part of the Oslo accord, the PA is charged with ensuring that no Palestinian attacks occur on Israel. And in the past three years, the PA has taken on an increasingly active role in guaranteeing security. Since the Wye agreement last year, the US also has stepped up its involvement, acting as a mediator between Palestinians and Israelis over security disputes.

"At that time, 1996, we had only one side to face - the Israelis. Now we have three [Israel, the PA, and the US]," says Yassin. "At that time the PA security had no experience here. Now they have a lot of experience, and they are everywhere."

Such security cooperation, the sheikh says, "has obstructed several military operations." Attempts to retaliate so far "did not succeed" and were planned despite the election.

Ismail Abu Shanab, a moderate Hamas official, says there is a lot of gray area regarding Hamas methods. "People see the political side more clearly now," he says. "Sometimes we ask the military wing to understand the political situation.... But military cells are small and can make individual decisions."

That's no worry of Mahmoud Zahar, the tough Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "We will keep up the resistance. The Crusaders were in the Holy Land for 100 years, four generations, before Saladin reconquered Jerusalem," he says. "If our generation does not achieve victory, then the next generation will do it."

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