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Abbas Will Have to Win More Than Vote

Times Staff Writer

As evening prayers ended and bearded men drifted out of Palestine Mosque, a mention of Mahmoud Abbas stopped one of the worshipers in his tracks, bringing a scornful smile to his lips.

“He will never succeed,” the man said, turning up the edge of his black cloak against a drizzle of cold rain. Other men emerging from the mosque, a longtime Hamas stronghold in the heart of this Gaza Strip city, crowded around to second that view.

Did they mean to say that Abbas, the clear front-runner in Sunday’s Palestinian Authority presidential election, would not win?

“Oh, he will certainly win,” the man in the cloak said, as his companions nodded. “But he will not succeed.”

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Islamist extremist groups, most notably Hamas, the largest and most powerful of the Palestinian militant organizations, probably pose the greatest threat to hopes that Abbas will be able to help usher in a new era of Middle East peacemaking.

The 69-year-old leader, known as Abu Mazen, is a pragmatist who declared Thursday that, if elected, he would reopen negotiations with Israel. He has a rapport with Palestinian fighters associated with his largely secular Fatah movement and may be able to contain them. But the Islamists have not been won over.

Hamas, whose name is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, does not recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, which was born of the 1993 Oslo accords signed with Israel.

For that reason, Hamas is boycotting Sunday’s vote. But that doesn’t mean it is sitting on the sidelines. From its birthplace and home base in the Gaza Strip, the group is exerting influence over electoral events in ways large and small.

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Its fighters have been the driving force behind a hail of mortar and rocket fire directed at Israeli troops and Jewish settlements in Gaza. The attacks have spiked since the presidential campaigning began two weeks ago and intensified in recent days as Abbas was campaigning in the seaside strip of land.

The militant attacks, and the heavy Israeli military response to them, have presented Abbas with some of his most difficult moments on the campaign trail.

By condemning the Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks, Abbas alienated some of the fighters whose support he had been courting. He angered Israel on Tuesday by referring to it as the “Zionist enemy” after seven Palestinian youths were killed in Israeli tank fire. Locals identified them as farm boys, though the military said it had shot at Hamas militants firing mortars.

Some observers believe the militant group has been sending Abbas a message: If he makes too many concessions to Israel, Hamas can sabotage his leadership by staging much more serious attacks against Israel. Or it can strengthen his negotiating hand with the Israelis by choosing not to do so. Either way, the group is a force to be reckoned with.

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Still to be seen is whether the Hamas boycott of Sunday’s election will significantly dampen voter turnout, particularly in Gaza.

Supporters of Abbas are hoping for a high turnout to bolster the vote’s legitimacy.

Hamas insists it won’t interfere with balloting.

“We never asked the Palestinian people to boycott the elections, only our own members,” said Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri. “We are not trying to tell the people what to do.”

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But in Gaza neighborhoods that are considered the group’s home turf -- where the sites of “targeted killings” of Hamas leaders are local landmarks, eagerly pointed out by ragged boys -- many passersby shook their heads and turned away when asked if they intended to vote.

Some of those who sympathized with Hamas said they might cast a protest vote for Abbas’ main opponent, Mustafa Barghouti.

“It’s a way of showing our feelings against Abu Mazen,” said laborer Khalid Mokayeh.

The decision to sit out this election is by no means a sign that Hamas lacks political ambitions. The group has made it abundantly clear that in coming months, it will try to translate its popular support into a base of power in government, just as the Shiite Muslim organization Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.

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Hamas-affiliated candidates made strong showings in an initial round of local elections held last month in the West Bank, winning about one-third of the seats on municipal councils. The group also intends to field candidates for parliament in balloting this spring.

“Hamas believes it should move step by step, slowly -- first municipal elections, then legislative ones,” said Ghazi Hamad, the editor of a Gaza-based Islamist weekly newspaper called Al-Risala. “I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that Hamas will have Cabinet ministers in the future.”

Hamas has some purely pragmatic reasons for weighing a shift in emphasis away from armed conflict and toward electoral politics.

Its most important founding members -- Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Abdulaziz Rantisi and Ismail abu Shanab -- were all assassinated in the last 18 months by Israel. Dozens of its lower-level field commanders have been killed as well.

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But attempting a transformation from guerrilla army to political movement is fraught with risk. A group that made armed struggle against Israel its raison d’etre could quickly find itself perceived as irrelevant if it laid down its weapons.

With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intent on withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Hamas is determined to claim credit for the decision. The group may step up attacks in the months leading up to this summer, when Sharon hopes to evacuate the 21 Jewish settlements in the territory, home to about 8,000 Israelis.

Some observers think, however, that Hamas may adopt a relatively conciliatory stance while reserving the option of resuming all-out conflict with Israel. At the height of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the group was the main perpetrator of suicide bombings that killed and maimed hundreds of Israelis.

“An accommodation between Abu Mazen and Hamas is not impossible,” said Ziad abu Amr, a lawmaker who in the past has served as Abbas’ liaison with militant groups.

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Although Abbas’ relatively moderate views appear diametrically at odds with those of Hamas, the two could agree that violent attacks should be suspended for tactical reasons, Abu Amr said.

Israel, meanwhile, fears that Hamas may use Abbas’ election as a pretext for lying low, perhaps agreeing to a truce and then using the time to rebuild its arsenal and its ranks.

“We eliminated their highest tier, but we don’t have control in Gaza, so Hamas is still a very strong threat,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jacob Amidror, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.

But if Israel withdraws from Gaza, Abbas will need Hamas’ help in maintaining order -- and perhaps in providing basic services as well.

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In Gaza, at least, Hamas is viewed by many people as more capable of running day-to-day affairs than is the Palestinian Authority, which has been plagued by corruption and ineptitude. Hamas runs an efficient network of schools, clinics and social welfare agencies, much depended on by impoverished Palestinians.

“Hamas is the one that cares for us,” said Rouleh Mohammed, a mother of seven in Gaza’s ramshackle Jabaliya refugee camp. “Without them, I do not think we could survive.”


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