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Has Hamas changed its stripes? New unity government with PLO takes shape

A Palestinian Hamas militant takes part in a military show in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip May 29, 2014.


Hamas has been the bane of Israel's existence almost since its inception in 1988, in the early days of the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada, when the Islamic Resistance Movement first sent young men into the streets to throw rocks at the tanks of Israel's occupying army.

The Islamic movement that preceded Hamas's creation had enjoyed a certain amount of support from Israel's occupation authorities, who preferred to see Palestinian youths drawn to mosques rather than the militant Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. But the almost spontaneous outbreak of the intifada in December, 1987, ignited a fire under young Palestinians, especially in Gaza, and the Islamic movement felt compelled to respond with the creation of a new, more militant organization.

An offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas graduated from rocks to guns and then to bombs, directed at first at Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied territories. In the wake of the PLO's recognition of Israel in late 1993 (considered to be treason by Hamas) and 40 days after a settler's deadly attack on a room full of Muslims at prayer in Hebron in early 1994, Hamas launched a wave of suicide bomb attacks on civilians inside Israel, striking at buses, restaurants and bus stops. Attacks grew more frequent and deadly during the second intifada of 2000 to 2005, as pizza parlours, nightclubs and hotel dining rooms were targeted.

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This is the image of Hamas that most Israelis still retain, even though a new leader, Khaled Meshaal, called a halt to the practice of suicide bombings in 2005.

Little wonder then that the news in late April of reconciliation between Hamas and its rival, the PLO, garnered a chilly reception from Israelis. When PLO leader and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced the two factions would agree on a government of national unity to be followed by elections in which all parties could run, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended peace talks with the PLO.

Hamas rejected the PLO's 1993 Oslo Accord with Israel and, since 2007, when the parties' militias fought a brief but deadly battle in Gaza, the PLO has controlled the West Bank while Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip – and Israel liked it that way. By dividing the Palestinians, it could negotiate with Mr. Abbas, even as it allowed its West Bank settlements to expand, while keeping the more militant Hamas locked up in Gaza. The Islamic organization's use of rockets that targeted (but seldom hit) the civilian Israeli population in the south justified Israel's continued get-tough policy.

Things are changing. Mr. Abbas announced Thursday that the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Rami Hamdallah, would serve as prime minister of a national unity government, and that the membership of the new cabinet would be announced shortly. Mr. Hamdallah, it seems, was acceptable to both Hamas and the PLO, though officials said the two parties disagreed on who would serve in the important post of foreign minister. Hamas party leader Ismail Haniyeh, who had been elected by Palestinians as prime minister in January, 2006, but ended up only serving in that role in Gaza, has been offered the influential position of speaker of the legislative council.

Mr. Abbas has trumpeted these new developments as evidence that he speaks for all Palestinians and, on their behalf, would like to continue peace talks with Israel. His partner Hamas does not object.

Israel shudders at the thought. "Peace with us, or pact with Hamas," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "You can't have both."

Critics cite Hamas's failure to agree even to the minimal requirements of the Quartet as evidence that the organization is no partner for peace. The Quartet of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia has stated that Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce violent resistance and accept agreements with Israel signed by the PLO if it wants to be accepted.

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People such as former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon have said for years that it is necessary and appropriate to talk to Hamas, and that renouncing violence is the only requirement that matters. The Israeli government, however, remains staunchly opposed.

Mr. Abbas argues that by entering into this unity pact and agreeing on a new unity government, Hamas is endorsing the peace process and accepting the Quartet's conditions.

Has Hamas renounced violence?

No, certainly not yet, and it retains its militia, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, numbering about 7,000 in Gaza, along with its weapons. "The al-Qassam Brigades' weaponry is of national importance to confront the occupation," said Mousa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's second-in-command. "Hamas's position in this regard is clear, and it will not allow any tampering with the brigades' armament, under any circumstances."

There is, however, a provision in the unity pact for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to deploy 3,000 men from its Western-trained militia to Gaza, according to Abdel Salam Siyyam, a senior Hamas official. It may be small comfort to nervous Israelis to hear that more fighters are to be sent to Gaza, but the deployment is meant to neutralize any possible threat from Hamas or other militants, as well as to help police Gaza and its borders with Israel and Egypt.

Does Hamas accept the peace process?

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Not to the point of being willing to participate in it.

"From our 25 years of experience," said Hamas's Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, "we have concluded that Israel does not want peace. It wants to control the Palestinian territories and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state."

However, Hamas does accept that Mr. Abbas can negotiate with Israel on behalf of all Palestinians, said Hasan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas who recently was released from Israeli prison, "provided any agreement reached with Israel is subject to a referendum."

Hamas is not afraid to walk away from negotiations. "Hamas has several other options," said Naif Rajoub, a leading Hamas religious figure in the West Bank.

If not the peace process, then what?

While Hamas has not taken the military option off the table, neither is it the group's first choice – the brutal defeat it suffered in the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza is still fresh in its mind and even the addition of hundreds of new, more sophisticated missiles does not alter the fact that there is an imbalance of power.

Instead, Hamas has welcomed Mr. Abbas's initiative to seek international recognition via the United Nations and other international bodies. It is intended that such recognition of Palestine be both as a "state" and as "occupied" territory (rather than as "disputed" territory as Israel calls it).

It is as an occupied state that Palestine can seek judgment from international courts for alleged violations of the Geneva Conventions, one of the sets of documents Palestine recently signed.

What kind of peace arrangement would Hamas support?

Hamas has long supported the idea of a long-term hudna (truce), during which Palestinians would govern a sovereign state within the 1967 lines (Gaza and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem). "This is as far as we go in our political strategy regarding a political settlement," said Sheik Yousef, the Hamas founder.

"Hamas will not recognize Israel," Mr. Abu Marzook said. "This is a red line that cannot be crossed."

Some Hamas leaders, such as Ahmed Yousef (no relation to the Hamas founder), a senior adviser to Mr. Haniyeh, have said that living side-by-side with Israel for 20 years or so would show "the great potential for the two nations living in peace."

But others caution that Hamas won't settle for such an arrangement. "We will never accept that this is the last word on a Palestinian state," said Ayman Batniji, a Gaza imam and spokesman for the Hamas police force. "We will keep our right to liberate all of Palestine," by which he means Israel too.

Does Hamas accept the Quartet's three conditions for recognition?

No. "These conditions are meaningless to Hamas," said Mahmoud Musleh a member of parliament and a leader of the Islamic movement in the West Bank prior to Hamas. "Look what has happened to those who accepted these conditions. Look at the PLO, which is not able to get an inch towards any solution after 20 years of negotiations."

"The Quartet's conditions are unjust and unfair," said Mr. Hamad, Hamas's deputy foreign minister. "The Palestinian people are supposed to recognize Israel and give up resistance, but they don't impose on Israel any conditions such as a halt to settlements."

Mr. Abu Marzouk interprets the Quartet's conditions as requiring Hamas to decommission the al-Qassam weapons. "This is unacceptable," he said, "and Hamas will reject it outright."

But what of Mr. Abbas's statement to the Palestinian Central Council that Hamas agreed that the unity government would follow Mr. Abass's political line and accept the Quartet's terms? Mr. Abu Marzouk said the Palestinian president's statement "was not agreed upon" and that "[Mr. Abbas] alone is responsible for his words."

Why has Hamas supported the unity pact?

For tactical reasons, its leaders say.

"What Hamas wants out of this project is to become part of the PLO," Sheik Musleh said. "We need to rehabilitate the PLO through elections in the PNC [Palestine National Council] in order to empower the PLO."

"The [pact] has one main task: preparing for the elections," said Sheik Yousef, the Hamas founder.

These are elections that Hamas is confident it can win.

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