Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Hamas thinking about `change'

SOFTENING STANCE?The organization regarded as a terrorist movement in the West is beginning to realize that violence will not help it win elections

THE GUARDIAN , UM TUBA,

The Israeli policemen who wrestled Mohammed Abu Teir off to jail for illegal election campaigning in East Jerusalem this week probably did more to pile on the votes for the red-bearded sheik than all the handshakes and sloganeering.

Sheikh Abu Teir is number two on the list of Hamas candidates for next week's election to the Palestinian parliament, but Israel has barred what it classifies as a terrorist organization from campaigning, so the group appears on the ballot as the "Change and Reform" movement.

"The police told us we were Hamas. We told them we are Change and Reform. We went around and around. They wanted us to admit we were Hamas so they could charge us, but we didn't," said Sheikh Abu Teir.

The police would not have found it very difficult to have made the link. Sheikh Abu Teir was released from prison six months ago after the latest stint of a total of 25 years in Israeli jails for serving in Hamas' armed wing, for membership of a terrorist organization and distributing weapons.

But locking up Hamas candidates -- about a quarter are in Israeli jails -- only bolsters their credibility among Palestinian voters, who generally see all security prisoners as political martyrs. It has helped fuel Hamas's surge in the polls to close to 40 percent of the vote, only marginally less than the establishment Fatah led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And the gap is closing.

After the election, the Islamist vement is almost certain to be the second largest party in the Palestinian parliament, and to win outright in the Gaza strip. That presents a dilemma for Israel, and the US and Europe, which must decide how to deal with an organization they call terrorist but that has evident electoral support.

But it also poses a problem for Hamas, which has to define its role within a system built around a negotiated peace deal with a country the Islamist movement refuses to recognize.

To compete in the elections, Hamas has largely retreated from "armed resistance" -- its strategy of murdering civilians in suicide bombings and shooting soldiers -- in favor of a political pragmatism some Palestinian analysts believe will make it difficult for Hamas to return to a sustained violent campaign.

The Hamas manifesto hinted at the change when it left out any reference to the call in the group's founding charter for the destruction of the Jewish state.

"We were political since day one but the armed resistance was at the forefront," said Sheikh Abu Teir.

"Now we studied the situation and we read the situation. There was a truce that ended at the beginning of this month and there is still quiet by us. That doesn't mean the possibility of resistance is ended but a political decision was made that political work is superseding the military work. That means we are investing in the present situation to the maximum," he added.

Hamas boycotted the last Palestinian parliamentary election 10 years ago on the grounds that the Oslo peace accords were a surrender of Islamic lands, and menaced electors by declaring that anyone who voted was defying God.

But afterwards it increasingly infiltrated the political scene, building popular support by providing myriad social services as ordinary Palestinians grew increasingly disillusioned with the corruption and mismanagement of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

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