Hamas aims to improve image

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- When the militant Islamic group Hamas won its stunning victory in Palestinian elections last week, Ismail Haniyeh delivered a few words to calm people nervous about his organization's intentions: "Don't be afraid."

It's a message the world can expect to hear often from Haniyeh, the Hamas official who will likely serve as the prime minister in the new Palestinian government, say other members of Hamas, a political party that Israel, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization.

With his neatly groomed gray beard and finely tailored clothes, Haniyeh has emerged as the public face of the often-secretive organization. Considered moderate and pragmatic, he has taken on the job of changing Hamas' image from that of a gang of suicide bombers and thugs into that of a group of trusted, visionary leaders of the Palestinian people.

It will not be an easy job.

Hamas faces a mountain of challenges, including the Palestinian Authority's inability to pay workers salaries or its bills, threats by Western donors to cut off financial aid and growing violence by members of Fatah who are frustrated by their party's crushing defeat after 40 years of dominance. There are also mixed messages from Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders, including the group's exiled political head, Khaled Meshal.

Meshal said yesterday that Hamas, rather than disarm, was prepared to merge its military wing with other armed Palestinian factions to create a full-time army, and he defended Hamas' past attacks on Israeli civilians.

"As long as we are under occupation, then resistance is our right," he said at a news conference in Damascus, Syria. "We will honor our Palestinian commitments, provided that it serves our people.

"We will not recognize the Israeli occupation, but we are realistic, and we know things are done gradually. ... Being against occupation does not mean I can cancel Israel in moments."

Hamas will face significant issues almost immediately.

"I think Hamas doesn't have any time to get its act together," said Mark LeVine, an associate professor of modern Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, who is conducting a long-term research project on Hamas. "Now is the time for it to decide if it can move from being an opposition movement that resists to a movement that can lead."

Fatah gunmen and police added to the pressure on Hamas yesterday by seizing control of the parliament buildings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and shouting that they were opposed to Fatah's working with Hamas in a new government. Other Fatah activists marched to the office compound of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to pray at the grave of Yasser Arafat.

Israel's government - which was as surprised as Fatah by Hamas' winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament - has vowed not to have any contact with a Hamas-led government.

President Bush, meanwhile, has called on Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and abolish its military wing, which has been responsible for scores of suicide bombings against Israelis and hundreds of deaths. If not, the Palestinians will lose millions of dollars in aid funding, he warned.

Hamas officials remain defiant, saying that they are willing to extend a cease-fire and perhaps embrace more moderate views but that the world community must be willing to meet them on their own terms.

"I think the American administration should not ask Hamas to do so and so, and so at the same time give Israel the green light to continue their aggression against our people in the West Bank with incursions, building settlements and building the wall," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman. "I think this is not fair."

But analysts say that Hamas is not in a position to make many demands. Willingly or not, it will have to choose between renouncing violence and in return continue receiving Western aid, or breaking free from international controls at the price of sinking the Palestinians into deeper poverty.

"It either gets stuck in that same cycle of money used as a disciplining mechanism, or they retain their independence and people start starving," said LeVine. "It's not a very palatable choice." He expects Hamas to gamble that other governments will contribute aid as Hamas sticks to a cease-fire.

Yesterday, Haniyeh suggested that Hamas might look for funds in the Arab world.

"This aid cannot be a sword over the heads of the Palestinian people and will not be material to blackmail our people, to blackmail Hamas and the resistance," Haniyeh said, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Hamas, as its leaders have promised, will probably continue to honor the cease-fire, if only out of concern that Israel would otherwise target Hamas leaders, including those who are about to take seats in parliament.

"They will be very cautious because they are not like Arafat, who was beloved everywhere he went," said Mordechai Kedar, a political analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Domestically, Hamas must deliver on its promise to restore law and order and reform the corrupt, bloated bureaucracies that it is inheriting from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. But any reforms will likely be opposed by the thousands of government workers who have come to depend on the Palestinian Authority for their livelihoods.

"What are they going to do? It is like a curse. The patronage is a disaster, but given how bad the economy is, you can't suddenly dry up the corruption, because that's what has been putting food on people's tables," said LeVine, the researcher at the University of California.

Finally, there is the question of how Hamas will handle tensions with Fatah and its most prominent member, Abbas.

After Fatah's humbling defeat, Abbas has said he would use his position as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which does not fall under the control of the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, to continue negotiations with Israel. But Hamas will only allow Abbas such liberty if he negotiates as Hamas wishes, analysts say.

"No one voted in Hamas just so they'll be collecting garbage and building streets and running schools. They elected them because they are hoping they can push Israel to end this conflict," LeVine said.

It will fall to Haniyeh, a 46-year-old former academic dean at Gaza City's Islamic University, to lead the push for reform and perhaps some kind of settlement with Israel, said Hamad, the Hamas spokesman.

Hamas has already shown its ability to surprise. "I think Hamas now has to draw a new picture. They will try to show the world that there is a possibility to talk to Hamas," said Hamad. "I think people should change their mind regarding Hamas."

There are often mixed messages sent out by the leadership of Hamas. But Hamas officials suggest that Haniyeh, who has years of experience appearing as a spokesman for Hamas, especially at difficult times, will be their leading voice.

After Hamas carried out suicide attacks and bombings, or feared assassination by Israelis, Haniyeh was the figure who stayed in sight and faced the cameras, defending Hamas' violent actions.

Haniyeh, who is married with 11 children, worked his way up in the Hamas organization, running sports and social programs. He studied Arabic literature at Islamic University. He also spent three years in prison in Israel before being deported to Lebanon. After his return to Gaza, he became an assistant to Hamas' former leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli bombing raid in 2004.

"They are looking to him as a moderate man who has good connections with all Palestinian factions," said Hamad. "Really, he is gentleman."

john.murphy@baltsun.com

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