Leaders of the militant Islamic movement Hamas said Thursday that they will not participate in upcoming Palestinian elections and will continue military attacks against Israelis.
The announcement came at the end of four days of negotiations between senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas in Cairo. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat canceled plans to join the talks Thursday, after Hamas' position became clear.
Arafat has tried for months to convince Hamas--through a mixture of persuasion and coercion--to abandon its attacks on Israelis and join the political process. On Thursday, however, Hamas leaders said they still oppose the 1993 Israel-PLO peace accord, which created the framework for the Jan. 20 election of a Palestinian self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The position of Hamas has not changed on the elections. Hamas will not participate in the elections," Hamas spokesman Mohammad Nazzal told reporters in Cairo on Thursday. "We will not lay down our guns. We will not stop our armed struggle, because this is a strategic aim for Hamas. As long as the occupation continues, the armed struggle and resistance will continue."
Hamas maintains that the Jewish state has no right to exist and that Palestinians are obligated by Islamic law to destroy it.
Some PLO and Hamas officials tried to minimize their failure to reach an agreement. PLO officials said they were encouraged by Hamas' apparent decision not to order its followers to boycott the elections.
"They informed us that they will not participate directly in the nominating process [for the elections]," said Nabil Amru, an Arafat advisor who participated in the negotiations. However, "I predict that they will not play a negative role. . . . We can look forward to smooth, quiet elections and a high turnout."
But Tayeb Abdel Rahim, secretary general of the Palestinian Authority, said, "The level of success in the talks was absolutely zero."
Political observers said Hamas is apparently unable to resolve the split within the movement between the leadership based outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip and those leaders living inside the territories. Leaders inside the territories have urged the organization to participate in elections.
Failing to join in the political process "is going to hurt Hamas badly," said Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist at An-Najah University in the West Bank and a public opinion pollster. "In the long run, this will mean they will become irrelevant to the political process."
Hamas members who participated in the talks said the movement will field candidates in municipal, trade union and university student body elections. Hamas officials also left open the possibility that some Hamas members may run independently in the upcoming elections for a self-governing authority.
With its large network of health clinics, mosques and social services, Hamas is believed to have tens of thousands of supporters in the Gaza Strip. Its popularity in the West Bank is weaker, and opinion polls have showed its support dropping in both areas as Palestinian self-rule has expanded from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho to include most Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank.
But even with its support on the wane, Hamas poses the most significant threat to Arafat of the many Palestinian opposition groups because it has a pool of members prepared to die carrying out attacks on Israelis. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres, both said the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will stand or fall on the ability of Arafat to prevent terrorist attacks on Israelis.
Hamas, together with the smaller Islamic Jihad, has carried out a series of devastating bombing attacks on Israelis inside the Gaza Strip and in the heart of Israel, hoping to derail the peace accord. The groups succeeded in slowing the pace of negotiations for awhile, until Arafat began arresting their leaders and some of their military men. Neither group has carried out an effective bombing attack against Israelis for months.
As Hamas appears increasingly on the political defensive, public opinion polls show Arafat's popularity surging along with Palestinian support for the peace agreement.
And Palestinian enthusiasm for elections is growing as the Israelis roll out of West Bank towns, ending 28 years of occupation.
On Thursday, Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem, leaving behind a city filled with joyful celebrants. Palestinians handed the departing troops bouquets of flowers, then tore down the towering chain-link fence that for years protected the Israeli police station in Manger Square. Tens of thousands of dancing, singing, weeping people jammed the square to watch a fireworks display and the hoisting of the Palestinian flag.
It was the sixth West Bank town the Israelis have withdrawn from since signing the peace agreement. Arafat is scheduled to preside Sunday over Palestinian Christmas celebrations in the biblical town, birthplace of Jesus.