In a public opinion survey conducted by the Al-Mustiqbal Center in Gaza two weeks ago, 52 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Hamas in the upcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Only 13 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Fatah.

All public opinion surveys that have been conducted recently in the West Bank and Gaza indicate this trend. Within two or three days, the Palestinian Legislative Council is expected to complete the new election law and if that indeed happens (something that is not entirely certain), the elections for the Palestinian parliament will take place three months from now on July 17.

Sheikh Hassan Yousef of Ramallah, considered the most prominent Hamas figure in the West Bank, is of course familiar with these statistics. Like his friends in the movement's leadership, he is aware of the fact that suddenly there is a fairly realistic possibility that Hamas will be very successful in the elections and become the largest political movement among the Palestinians. What will Hamas do then? How will it act? Will it form a government? Will it seek to conduct negotiations with Israel?

In an interview with Haaretz, Sheikh Hassan Yousef said that "it's still too early to answer these questions. We in the Hamas leadership have made a decision in principle to participate in the elections, and now we are in the midst of consultations and discussions over everything related to that matter. It is still unclear what method will be used to conduct the elections, and we, too, have not yet decided whether we will run on one list for the movement or in partnership with other lists, and we may ask independent people (that is those who are not members of Hamas) to run in our name."

What influences your considerations?

"Many factors, social and political. It's important to us, for example, that the people of the Palestinian nation are not hurt by the fact that we win in the elections. Yes, after all, everyone knows what Israel's position on Hamas is and what others' position on us is. Therefore, there certainly exists among us concern that Israel, and perhaps also others, will impose punishments on the Palestinians because they voted for Hamas. They will say `you decided to choose Hamas and therefore we will intensify the siege over you and make your lives difficult.' That is certainly a consideration we must take into account because concern for our people is the main focus of our attention."

One of the founders

Hassan Yousef is considered the spokesman of the moderate wing of Hamas. He is 50, a native of the village of al-Ghaniya, near Ramallah, and he is known as Abu Masab, after his eldest son, who escorts him and works with him.

Last Saturday, Sheikh Yousef managed to sneak into the Old City of Jerusalem and, along with hundreds of other movement supporters, entered Al-Aqsa Mosque. He slept there that night and on Sunday led the large demonstration in the plaza outside the mosques against what he called "the attempts by Jewish extremists to desecrate Islamic holy sites."

Yousef's remarks at the Al-Aqsa event and pictures taken there were widely circulated, primarily because of the Israeli alert prior to expected attempts by the right-wing movement Revava to bring thousands of Jews up to the Temple Mount that same day. One Fatah leader in East Jerusalem sought to call attention to the fact that on Sunday only green Hamas flags were hoisted atop Al-Aqsa Mosque. There was not a single Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) flag there, and members of Hamas were the only recognizable Palestinian figures present.

Among the Palestinians there has been much talk of late about the fact that Hamas is the only movement that is seen on the streets. The other movements, headed by Fatah, have simply disappeared.

A democratic framework

He speaks Arabic interspersed with Hebrew words he learned in prisons. A meeting with an Israeli journalist is - as far as he is concerned - a meeting with a rival, even an enemy. But, he says, "I always treat a person I meet first of all as a human being."

There is talk of Hamas entering the PLO fold, how are the talks progressing?

"We're looking into the matter. When you want to buy a house and move into it, you first of all inspect it. Perhaps something needs to be changed, repairs are needed, refurbishment. The political and social platform of the PLO and Hamas platform differ, and this is known."

Yousef is referring to the fact that the PLO recognized Israel and the principle of two states and changed the Palestinian National Covenant, whereas Hamas continues to advocate establishing a Palestinian state in the entire territory of pre-1948 Palestine, because the entire country is Muslim Waqf (Muslim religious trust) of which not even one inch can be given up. In other words, the State of Israel has no right to exist.

He speaks diplomatically and cautiously.

As for the latest security-related incidents, he blames Israel for turning its back to the "calming" efforts agreed to in Cairo by the Palestinian factions.

It is commonly thought that the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza supports Hamas not necessarily because of its political views, but because the Palestinians are fed up with the government corruption in the Fatah movement. Do you agree?

"The claims against the government and Fatah are not only about corruption. When there is talk about the Hamas movement, people have faith in us. They see in our institutions places that operate on the basis of fairness and honesty, institutions that provide real help to residents. These institutions are known. These are social, welfare and educational institutions with dedicated workers who serve the public."

As far as his organization's political positions, Sheikh Yousef chooses his words carefully: "It should be said that we don't live in the clouds. We're not disconnected from the ground, but live among the people and are well aware of the reality. We read the situation in Israel, the region and the world very well, and we are well connected to the reality and assess it. On the basis of this reality check, we have room to maneuver, and we are able to show flexibility. You have to understand that Hamas is not an organization of political bureaucracy seeking to gain power. Our goal is serving the people, and that is what gives us our strength. A government can be removed by force, just as Saddam Hussein's government was removed in Iraq. You can't get rid of us."