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GAZA - A Palestinian journalist asked an armed Hamas militant yesterday why his organization had suddenly begun to fire Qassam rockets again after two months of quiet. His answer: "Do you know how many Qassams we have? What are we going to do with them next month, after disengagement?"

Some people say that six months after being manufactured, the Qassams explode by themselves. If so, it might explain the urgency Hamas suddenly feels to get rid of them. But the issue behind the escalation of violence is fundamentally one of internal Palestinian competition.

The main competition, between Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, expressed itself in Thursday's firing of missiles at the exact hour PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas arrived in the Gaza Strip. "The agreement for a truce and a halt to the firing of Qassams was part of a package deal with the PA, which included reforms, a struggle against corruption, and local and parliamentary elections," a Hamas activist said yesterday. "The PA broke its part of the bargain when it put off elections for the Legislative Council and annuled the results of the local elections in Rafah."

The agreement was made during a period when Hamas and the PA had a balance of power, the activist said. But now, "the PA can't afford to put down Hamas the way it did in 1996, although [Interior Minister] Nasser Yousef is trying." He said that instead of regarding Friday's clashes in Gaza City between Hamas and the PA which resulted in the deaths of two youths and the wounding of several others as a local skirmish, he "made things worse" with his declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of armored vehicles into the Zeitun and Sabra neighborhoods. "We didn't see the armored jeeps protecting the Gaza residents when the Israelis invaded," the activist said. "Hamas couldn't keep quiet in the face of this escalation and the attempt of the PA to breach the balance between the forces."

The Hamas activist, who says he personally opposes both the firing of rockets at this time and shooting at PA forces, added, "But if Hamas youths learned from anyone to make their political demands with their weapons, it was from Fatah and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades."

Those opposed to Hamas say the shooting came from weakness: Hamas had calculated that the Legislative Council elections would take place before disengagement, and it could present the pullout as a Hamas achievement. The delay in the elections thwarted this plan. The PA, assisted by the contributions and interest of the international community, is counting on a period of political moderation following economic recovery, which is expected to be reflected in its favor at the polls. Competition also exists between Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, has no social institutions or wide public backing. According to the Hamas activist, Islamic Jihad has stepped up its actions against Israel recently after local elections results showed it lacked appeal at the polls. It is compensating for its weakness in numbers with military actions, and when Israel responds, Hamas cannot "sit on its hands." An independent commentator in Gaza says that Hamas cannot stand the thought of the public seeing Islamic Jihad as the "opposition." But he does not entirely discount a matter of competition for Islamic funding, which is channeled to the organization that can show the most armed activity against the Israeli occupation, successful or not.

There are opposing interpretations to the quiet Friday afternoon after the clashes. No seething mob streamed from the mosques to the streets. "This is proof of the power of Hamas and its ability to rein in its people," said a Hamas member. But a senior activist in one of the depleted leftist organizations, who spares no barbs against the PA, had the opposite impression. "If Hamas could have gotten its people into the streets, it would have. The movement lost points with the public on Friday." But then came the targeted killings by the Israel Defense Forces. On Friday around 3 P.M., when a car carrying a few armed Hamas members in Gaza was blown up by an Israeli Air Force gunship, representatives of the various political organizations were meeting to try to find ways to calm things down. The PA was boiling with anger: "Just when it is clear we are working to restrain Hamas, Israel comes and attacks us. It makes it easier for Hamas to claim that Israel and the PA in Gaza are against the National-Islamic movement." A senior PA official said, "Islamic Jihad, Israel and Hamas have a common goal: a weak PA."