The Muslim extremist group Hamas appeared to move a step closer to trading terrorism for legal politics Friday when four of its members left the Gaza Strip to consult with their leadership abroad about participating in Palestinian elections.
Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat has been in intermittent negotiations with Hamas over the past two years, trying to get the group to cease terrorist attacks on Israelis and honor his 1993 peace accord with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Arafat, the Israelis and international backers of the accord would like to see Hamas run candidates in elections for a Palestinian governing council that are to be held next year.
But first the group must renounce violence. Hamas has been trying to torpedo the peace process with suicide bus bombings and other assaults that have taken dozens of Israeli lives in the past two years.
"We have been urging them to get involved in the peace process, and they asked to consult their leadership abroad," said Nabil abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Arafat. "We signed an agreement that we will not allow Palestinian land to be used to attack anyone, and it is on that basis we have urged them to join our elections."
Hamas leaders inside Palestinian-ruled Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho have appeared to be leaning in the direction of running candidates for some time. Many of the political leaders are aware that they are losing popular support for their terrorist attacks, and that they are being left out of a quickly developing Palestinian political system.
Their leaders in Jordan and Syria, however, have taken a much tougher line, and it is unclear whether they would support a move into the Palestinian mainstream.
Elections for the 82-member governing council are to be held in the spring after Israeli troops have pulled out of Palestinian cities and villages captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israeli officials said they are unsure that the four Hamas members' trip to meet with their leaders would result in an end to terrorism.
"We pay attention to action rather than to all these words," Rabin spokesman Uri Dromi said. "We want to see Hamas not only talk about politics but drop terrorism."
Still, Israelis let the Hamas leaders leave Gaza and cross the international border, which Israel controls.
"There's no harm in trying," Dromi said.