From Israeli jails, Hamas activists press middle way

A rarely seen Hamas faction is emerging as an unlikely moderate and influential force within the Islamic militant party now running the Palestinian Authority.

A group of Hamas members who are imprisoned within Israeli jails have become a counterweight to colleagues in Gaza as the political players capable of bridging the rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas over how to share power and avoid a civil war.

Tuesday, they called on Hamas to endorse a document reached between Hamas and Fatah prisoners that would effectively recognize the Jewish state, a decision that would contradict the militant's charter and one Mr. Abbas said they would have to make by early next week.

In an uncharacteristically feisty speech last week, Abbas said that if Hamas didn't accept the prisoners' "national conciliation" accord that advocates a two-state solution, he would take it to the public in a referendum.

On Monday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar rejected the idea of a referendum as a waste of time and money, the Associated Press reported. Others within the organization have even questioned whether the Hamas prisoners' endorsement of the two-state solution was genuine.

The Hamas prisoners' statement "has political and nationalist weight," says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst. "When people who are prisoners make a statement, it resonates because they are people who have worked hard, and they are paying with their lives. You can't argue about the political purity of these guys in jail. They aren't in anyone's political pocket."

In an interview with the Palestinian Al-Kuds newspaper published Tuesday, Hamas prisoner leader Sheikh Abdel Nasser Issa insisted that the prisoners' accord was a genuine expression of the Islamist prisoners and should be adopted by the Islamic militants outside Israeli jails. "We are hoping it will be considered a comprehensive agreement and will get the support of everyone," said Mr. Issa, who is serving consecutive life sentences.

"Nobody should exploit this document and say that it represents one person or one organization," he said.

Hamas is expected to do everything in their power to avoid a referendum on the prisoners' document, which risks a public rebuke of their ideology of refusing to recognize Israel, analysts say.

A two-month-old survey taken by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki on the eve of the inauguration of the Hamas government found that two-thirds of Palestinians support mutual recognition with Israel and a two-state solution. Some 75 percent wanted Hamas to negotiate with Israel.

"This is their Achilles' heel," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East export at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "Hamas realizes that they weren't elected for their ideology, and most likely such a referendum would pass."

Tuesday, some 400 civil servants demonstrated outside Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's Ramallah office, clanging on pots and shouting "we need a program.''

"The referendum might finish this crisis,'' said protester Mohaamad Sirhan Abu Eesa, a teacher from Deir Dibwan near Ramallah. "We might have a national unity government. We might even get the salaries.''

Hamas has four centers of influence: Damascus, Gaza, the West Bank, and the prisons. Hamas's prisoner leadership wields an equally influential voice as politicians in Gaza and outside the Palestinian territories in setting movement policy, says Abdel Rahman Zaidan, who serves as public works minister in the all-Hamas cabinet.

In a political system caught between liberation movement and an embryonic sovereign government, time in an Israeli jail is a powerful résumé-builder for politicians. With thousands of Palestinians arrested by the Israeli army and border police over the five-year uprising, the detainees have prisoner-of-war status among Palestinians.

The prisoners agreement, signed May 11, included representatives from Hamas, Fatah and three other Palestinian factions. It calls for negotiations with Israel, limiting the Palestinian uprising to the West Bank, and for Islamist groups to join the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) - which would mean an implicit recognition of the peace accords with Israel.

Mr. Zaidan, who spent four years imprisoned by Israel, described the jail as an ivory tower for Palestinian militants, where activists from different backgrounds have enough time to reflect and mingle with one another.

"They are the think tanks of the factions. The prisoners have no other distractions, so they're dedicated to thinking, they're reading newspapers, and they're following every little incident,'' says Zaidan.

"Rival Palestinian groups are more understanding of each other than [they are] outside the prison. This closeness gives more chance for dialogue, interaction and exchange of ideas. This is very healthy. I know that some of my views and relationships with other people have been formed by these four years.''

The rift between Hamas prisoners and the outsiders reveals how geographic location often plays a role in determining whether Islamic militant leaders are more ideological or pragmatic.

"What we are seeing is three different levels of political positioning," Kuttab says. "The hardest of the hard-liners are the ones who are abroad in Syria, Khaled Meshal's group. Then you have more moderate, who are in power [in the Palestinian territories], and they are less radical. The most pragmatic are the prisoners.''

Hamas Minister of Prisoner Affairs Mohammed Abu Tir, who was released from jail after serving 25 years, said he knew the Hamas signatory to the prisoners' document, Sheikh Abdul Khaleq al-Natsheh from time spent together in prison.

"Even though I have reservations about the document, I trust him," Abu Tir says. "People inside jails live in a situation where they could never betray the principles on which their factions are based on.''

Nuha Musleh contributed reporting from Ramallah.

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