Militant Islamic Group and PLO Strike Political Partnership


Putting aside a rivalry that once led to daily gun battles in the dusty streets here, the militant Islamic group Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization are coming to an understanding on how the region will be run as it emerges from Israeli rule this week.

Built on compromises rejected out of hand only a few months ago, the deal pulls the two strongest forces in the Gaza Strip into a political partnership. It could shape the new Palestinian Authority that will govern here and determine the success or failure of Palestinian self-rule.

For Hamas, the shift is fundamental, because it means implicit acceptance of the deal the PLO struck with Israel recognizing the existence and legitimacy of the Jewish state in the hope of building an independent Palestine.

For the PLO and Fatah, its major political group, it means sharing power with the 7-year-old Hamas, more formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has shown in elections and opinion surveys that it has the backing of 30% to 40% of Gaza residents.

"We are trying to find a common denominator, the elements that we share and on which we can cooperate to promote political stability and social development in Gaza," said Tawfik abu Khousah, a leader of the Fatah Hawks, a PLO militia. "Ideological differences remain, but we have a strong foundation for cooperation."

Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar, a Hamas leader, said, "Our opposition in the Islamic movement to the autonomy agreement with Israel is undiminished, but we will challenge it politically . . . and meanwhile cooperate for the people's sake."

Even before Israel and the PLO concluded their agreement on Palestinian self-government in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho district in the West Bank, many here had feared that the often-bitter rivalry between Hamas and Fatah would flare into open warfare if Israel ever withdrew its forces.

But for Abu Khousah, Hamas has simply recognized political realities: The PLO's agreement with Israel on self-government will be implemented shortly, and those who do not participate in running the Palestinian territories will be left behind. "From the moment they realized that a solution was coming, they began to search for their place in it," he said.

Fatah leaders appointed by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to oversee preparations for self-government here spoke last week at the Islamic University of Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, to assure faculty and students that the political system will be open to all groups.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the imprisoned Hamas founder, told his followers in an unusual interview from his jail cell that, while Hamas will not accept seats in the Palestinian Authority, it will participate in the legislative elections planned for October.

A controversial proposal circulating within Hamas would take the movement further--to a peace agreement with Israel. While Hamas would continue to work for an Islamic society and political system within Palestine, it would--under the proposal--accept the results of a general election there.

The extent of the cooperation between Hamas and the PLO is still being negotiated, with much speculation about how much of the show Hamas will actually run. Some Fatah members believe that Arafat is even willing to give control of Gaza City to Hamas.

Cooperation between the PLO and Hamas worries many Israelis, who have been encouraged to think of the PLO as the "good Palestinians," willing to make peace, and Hamas as "bad" because of its continued attacks on Israelis.

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