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patrick martin

Meet the new face of Hamas.

Israa al-Modallal, 23, a British-educated Palestinian from Gaza, turned heads this week as she was appointed the international spokesperson for the militant Islamic Resistance Movement that governs the Gaza Strip.

The divorced mother of a four-year-old was not chosen because of her journalistic experience – she has very little – or because of a long-time commitment to the Islamist group.

"I am not Hamas," Ms. al-Modallal told reporters. "I am a Palestinian activist who loves her country."

The woman was chosen because she is female, young, media savvy, articulate and attractive – qualities that are in short supply in Hamas and that its leadership would like to project. With good reason.

Think of Hamas and you conjure up images of suicide bombings, rockets being launched on Israel and perhaps a strict religious code especially as it applies to women.

These are images – all based on historic fact – that make it difficult for the movement to be taken seriously as an interlocutor by Western powers. It doesn't matter that Hamas has not carried out suicide bombings since 2005, the images of those attacks linger and no Western electorate is clamouring for its government to change its approach to the organization.

In an apparent effort to alter those images and change that attitude, a new head of the Hamas government's media department, Ihab Ghussein, hired younger media people, started a new government website and began making extensive use of social media. Ms. al-Modallal is part of that initiative.

Of course, she's not the first female Palestinian spokesperson. Hanan Ashrawi, the academic and legislator, often spoke on behalf of the wider Palestinian community during the 1987-91 intifada and was official Palestinian spokesperson during the peace process of 1991-93.

Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, served as a PLO spokesperson during the second intifada (2000-05). Ms. Buttu, who served also as a legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority leadership, was lauded from many quarters for single-handedly changing the image of the Palestine Liberation Organization even in the midst of the violent uprising.

Perhaps that's what Hamas is aiming for with Ms. al-Modallal.

Of course, unlike Ms. Ashrawi and Ms. Buttu, both of whom played major roles in their organizations, Ms. al-Modallal is unlikely to have a say in shaping Hamas policy. Rather, she will be a mouthpiece with carefully scripted talking points.

Yet she still will be a definite change from past women of Hamas: women such as Reem al-Riyashi, a Gaza mother of two who killed herself and four Israelis in a suicide bombing at a border crossing in 2004; or Mariam Farhat (aka Umm Nidal) a Hamas member of parliament who lost three sons in suicide attacks against Israeli targets.

You could say that Hamas has not always been in touch with its feminine side. In the six years since the militant organization took over the Gaza Strip, it introduced a number of measures against "un-Islamic behaviour." Women were required to wear head scarves; they were prohibited from smoking water pipes in public, and female mannequins in shop windows had to be modestly dressed. A modesty patrol even walked the beach in summer, insisting that female bathers be fully covered and not consort with men.

All of it played to the stereotype of an extremist organization.

It didn't much matter that Khaled Meshaal, who became Hamas's leader in 2004, abandoned the practice of suicide bombings (largely because it caused a public relations nightmare) or that the organization ran in and won the Palestinians' first democratic elections in 2006 – Hamas still couldn't get any respect.

An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has always had a mixture of members and leaders ranging from less religious pragmatists to bloodthirsty extremists.

Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member of parliament from the West Bank city of Hebron, was a popular choice among all Palestinian parties in 2006 for the position of speaker of the legislature. Dr. Dweik, who got his PhD in geography from the University of Pennsylvania, always made it clear Hamas was willing to live in a Palestinian state alongside Israel; regardless of what Hamas's covenant said about striving "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine."

And Israelis, such as Ami Ayalon, a former director of Israel's domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, believe Israel must ultimately negotiate peace with Hamas. He argues that if you listen closely to Hamas leader Meshaal says, you'll hear he is calling for a two-state solution.

But when Mr. Ayalon tells people this, many look at him as if he were crazy. The message and the image do not compute.

That's the disconnect Hamas's leadership may be trying to fix with Ms. al-Modallal's appointment.

Of course, the best intentions can quickly come undone, especially if other people speaking for the organization aren't reined in.

On Wednesday, when a young Palestinian stabbed to death a 19-year-old Israeli soldier as he lay asleep on a bus in Northern Israel, Fawzi Barhum, a longtime spokesman congratulated the killer.

"This is a heroic act of resistance," he said, "showing that all methods of oppression and terror have not and will not succeed in stopping our people from carrying out jihad and resistance."