Hamas, the Muslim fundamentalist movement and Palestinian terrorist organization, may soon become a decisive force not only in the struggle against Israel but in the Palestinian political establishment.
For the first time in Palestinian political history, Hamas will participate in parliamentary elections scheduled July 17. All political analysts predict that the party will make an impressive show of force.
Hamas candidates may win between 30 percent and 50 percent of the seats in the next Palestinian Parliament, predicted Matti Steinberg, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to two heads of Israel's General Security Service. If Steinberg is right, it would amount to a political revolution.
Hamas is heading toward electoral success using tactics that demonstrate its ability to act both as a terrorist organization and as a political party that seeks to influence the Palestinian political agenda. On the one hand, it flexes its muscles toward Israel, warning that the present "calming down" period could end at any time; on the other, it maintains the cease-fire for now, realizing that this is what the street wants.
In the last two weeks, Hamas has proudly raised both the militant and pragmatic flags.
Hamas was a major player in last week's Temple Mount demonstration protesting the desire of devout Jews to visit the site, which is the holiest site in Judaism and also an important Muslim shrine. Hamas also took part in a mortar barrage aimed at Jewish settlements in Gaza, reacting to Israel's killing of three Palestinian youths involved in arms smuggling across Egyptian border.
Hamas has threatened to drop out of the "calming down" agreement, but at the same time, it maintains the tense cease-fire for now.
Though Israel killed many of its leaders during the intifada, Hamas has retained its popularity -- primarily because of the ineptitude of the ruling Palestinian Authority and corruption and infighting in the dominant Fatah Party -- and wants to use that momentum to propel itself forward.
Several weeks ago, Hamas candidates scored landslide victories in municipal elections in several Gaza towns.
"On the one hand, people want a political process headed by [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], as was indicated in the presidential elections [in January]," Steinberg said in an interview with Bitterlemons.org, a Middle East Web site. "But on the other hand, people want clean stables, the end of corruption and personal security, and these are connected with Hamas."
The July elections would be the first for Parliament in the Palestinian territories since 1996, and the first since Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president in January. Arafat postponed elections that had been set for 2000.
Hamas boycotted the earlier elections, saying they were an outgrowth of the Oslo accords, which it vehemently opposed, because they implied recognition of Israel. Hamas is dedicated to Israel's destruction.
Fatah, Abbas' party, now controls most of the 88-member Palestinian Parliament. There is growing concern among Palestinian opposition forces that Fatah will defer the elections, because Fatah seems likely to lose many seats. Palestinian legislators are introducing amendments to the electoral law, hoping to postpone the elections.
The Central Elections Commission recently said that it would need three months from the time the law is approved before it can hold elections. Three months from July 17 was last Sunday -- and no amendments had yet been passed. The issue was to be discussed sometime this week.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that if elections can't be held as scheduled, the group would have to rethink its commitment to an informal cease-fire with Israel. Hamas agreed to the de facto truce on the understanding that Abbas would pursue reforms in the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas has said concerns about electoral manipulation are unfounded.
"We have no intentions or desire to delay these elections," he told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.
However, it's not clear how much say Abbas has even in his own Fatah ranks. Abbas radiates political impotence, something President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed at their meeting last week at Bush's Texas ranch.
Hamas' decision to move toward power sharing largely is due to the shift in Palestinian public opinion since Arafat's death. A poll taken by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion after the Feb. 8 Sharm el-Sheik summit showed that about 60 percent of Palestinians were satisfied with the summit's results. Approximately 70 percent said they were worried about the diffusion of weapons in Palestinian society, and wanted one central authority that could maintain law and order.
Without at least the appearance of a move toward moderation, Hamas risked being marginalized by a Palestinian public increasingly fed up with the terrorists' efforts to draw Israel into confrontation. Hamas violence and the resulting Israeli retaliation has caused severe suffering among ordinary Palestinians during the intifada.
In addition, some changes in Israeli policy contributed to Hamas' own change in tactics. They included the release of hundreds of prisoners, the disappearance of helicopter gunships from Palestinian airspace, the end of targeted killings of leading terrorists, a slowdown in arrests of suspected terrorists, a growing sense of personal security in Palestinian areas and the beginning of Israeli withdrawals from some Palestinian cities.
The group's rhetoric remains nearly as belligerent as always, but the political consequences are different. A Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, said his movement wants to join the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main umbrella body for Palestinian groups, "to consolidate the resistance option in its capacity as the strategic option toward the liberation of Palestine."
Zahar reacted to growing concern among secular Palestinians that Islam and democracy can not go together. The issue recently has been raised by Ghassan Khatib, the P.A. minister of planning, in an article on Bitterlemons. The Web site has dealt at length with Hamas' growing power.
Secularists question whether Islamists who take power by democratic means are committed to maintaining democracy, Khatib wrote.
Fatah would be expected to rally its forces to face the challenge from Hamas. But Fatah, the ruling party, is preoccupied with an internal crisis that is developing mainly along the rift between the so-called old and new guards.
"Today in the eyes of most of the population, Fatah is identified with corruption and the disfunctionality of the P.A., whereas Hamas is considered clean by comparison," Steinberg said in the Bitterlemons interview.