Hamas considers a pragmatic truce

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The man who calls himself Abu Musab summons the faithful to prayer. Five times a day his voice bellows from speakers atop a mosque minaret.

He says he is a man of God, but Israeli authorities would say he is not a man of peace.

Abu Musab, 35, is a member of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a faction responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis at the hands of suicide bombers. Now, he is waiting for Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip to decide whether to call a cease-fire, as required by a U.S.-backed peace initiative. The American "road map" is a plan that the group vehemently opposes but may have to support in order to survive.

"I think the cease-fire is a good tactical move in light of recent developments," said Abu Musab, who would give only the name by which he is known among friends. "We are under a lot of pressure - from the Americans, the Arab states, the Palestinian leaders. But we know they are not serious. The plan will fail, but we don't want it to be our fault."

Talks in Gaza between Hamas leaders and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are continuing, and though Hamas has agreed in principal to a truce, its leaders are trying to win concessions from Israel.

Underscoring the difficulty of achieving unity on a truce, even as Abbas met with Palestinian leaders a suicide attacker blew himself up early today in an Israeli village, according to the Israeli police.

Police said a man entered a grocery in Sde Trumot and detonated his explosives, killing himself and the store's owner. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing.

Experts who study militant groups say Hamas has no choice but to lay down its arms, if only temporarily, or risk all-out confrontation with Israel or the Palestinian Authority. It is a fight that Abbas is trying to avert but might eventually have to join.

"Hamas has to stop fighting or we are going to end up in a civil war," said Munther S. Dajani, who heads the political science department at al-Quds University in Ramallah. "If they refuse, the Authority cannot afford to have Hamas running the show. These are not negotiations. This is an ultimatum."

The change in discourse came after a June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan, at which Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed in meetings with President Bush to follow the road map.

While the peace plan demands that the two sides make simultaneous concessions, the onus is on the Palestinian Authority to stop violence against Israel. Abbas has thus far avoided confiscating weapons and arresting militants, opting instead to negotiate a cease-fire. He has offered Hamas leaders a position in his government, hoping to bring them into the political mainstream.

Israel and the Palestinians appear to be edging closer to a deal, as Israel has reportedly agreed to stop most targeted killings of militants and large-scale military operations for at least six weeks if a cease-fire can be arranged. That would give Abbas time to rebuild Palestinian security forces that are to replace Israeli troops in the northern Gaza Strip.

Hamas' reaction to the Aqaba summit, at which Abbas called for an end to the Palestinian uprising, was to launch attacks, starting with the killing of four Israeli soldiers. Israel then fired missiles at a car containing Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, wounding him.

The next day, a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 16 passengers. Israeli army helicopters then killed a Hamas militant and several bystanders.

On Tuesday night, less than an hour after Abbas concluded his latest talks with leaders of militant groups in Gaza, Palestinian gunmen linked to Abbas' own Fatah political faction shot to death a 7-year-old Jewish girl, Noam Leibowitz, on an Israeli highway and seriously wounded her 5-year-old sister.

Israeli and American leaders are skeptical of a cease-fire, fearing that a truce would give Hamas time to regroup, but they are willing to accept one as a first step toward the eventual dismantling of the militant organizations.

Hamas leaders recognize that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is throwing the group a lifeline by offering a cease-fire.

"I think that Hamas needs a cease-fire," said Reuvin Paz, a senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "They are in the middle of rethinking or recalculating their next step. They have a political pragmatism."

While Hamas opposes the road map and all negotiations with Israel, its leaders have indicated that they would accept two states - Israel and Palestine - but only as a step toward their goal of eradicating Israel.

"Hamas does not give Abu Mazen a lot of credit," Paz said. "Like many officials in Israel, they expect that he will fail and resign. They are counting on that. But at the moment, they are under a lot of stress.

"The attempt to kill Rantisi was a change in Israeli policy," Paz said, "and they understand that one way or another it's better for them to be viewed as giving Abu Mazen a chance. At the same time, they are counting that Israel's military operations will give them the chance to go on with their armed struggle."

Abu Musab, the Hamas member in Ramallah, echoed those sentiments in an interview yesterday in a mosque library.

"The plan, like all the others before it, will fail, and our resistance will continue," he said.

But Abu Musab acknowledged that Hamas and other militant groups now stand apart. While they enjoy widespread support among the Palestinian people, the summits in Jordan and Egypt put those Arab countries in the U.S. camp. They agreed to cut off funding to groups other than the Palestinian Authority.

"The world, the Arab states, the Palestinian Authority and Israel are against us," said Abu Musab. "At the moment, we cannot be seen as the group that prevents this peace plan. What will we get out of it? Nothing. But at least Hamas will remain."

Abu Musab seems to be a practical man. He says that he works only on the social programs that Hamas has established over the years, including a youth camp that he runs. Abu Musab said he had been arrested by Israel for hiding Hamas bombers and throwing stones at Israeli troops, and by the Palestinian Authority in 1996 as part of the most recent crackdown on Hamas.

He says that if police come for him now, Palestinian or Israeli, he will not go quietly.

"I will resist," he said. "We will never give up our arms. We are stronger than the Palestinian Authority. They don't have any means to go after us."

Dajani, the al-Quds professor, said many Palestinians have come to view the uprising as a mistake that set back their cause.

"People are really frustrated," he said. "They are disappointed, hungry and feel trapped. There are different ways to resist, not necessarily the Hamas way."