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The expertise of Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the No. 2 man in the Hamas movement in the territories, lies in pediatrics. The 54-year-old Rantisi graduated cum laude from the medical school at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, following which he practiced his profession in the Gaza Strip for some years. A refugee - he was born in Yavneh - Rantisi built Hamas as a social movement and shaped it as a political tool. He is a graduate of Israeli prisons and Palestinian detention facilities, and was among the 400 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists who were deported to Lebanon by the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.

Like the other members of the Hamas leadership in the territories, Rantisi espouses a multi-stage ideology: He wants to get rid of the occupation and establish an Islamic theocracy in the territories and then, it is envisioned, to carry on the struggle to Islamize the world. From the point of view of this ideology, neither the formal education he acquired nor his excellence as a pediatrician is of any relevance: Rantisi has adopted terrorism in the form of suicide bombers as a legitimate weapon against Israel.

It is also completely immaterial to him that Yasser Arafat is the elected Palestinian leader. When the day comes and an independent Palestinian state comes into existence, Arafat will have no place in it, according to Rantisi. The collaboration between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is on an ad hoc basis, until a state is established. It is then that the real struggle, the important struggle, will begin, on the character of that state.

Until then, Hamas is ready to cooperate, but on its terms. Even when the movement agreed to be a part of the PA's institutions, in 1996 it demanded 40 percent representation without participating in the elections. The PA rejected that demand at the time. Last May, at a gathering in Gaza in which ranking Hamas figures - such as Rantisi, Mahmoud a-Zahar and Ismail Abu-Shanab - took part, along with senior figures from the PA, the Hamas chiefs stated that they were ready to participate in the Palestinians' governing institutions as part of the general reform, and even to take part in the elections, on condition that neither the elections nor the Palestinian state would rest on the foundation of the Oslo agreement.

The feelers about the creation of a possible coalition between the PA and Hamas were put out by Arafat's aides, but he himself did not express an opinion on the matter. We can take it that he is well aware of the implications of entering into a partnership with Hamas. And, indeed, within a few weeks Hamas proved to him, by perpetrating terrorist attacks that Arafat did not want, that it does not accept guidelines or advice from the PA.

When the secret talks between the PA, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were resumed, this time under the Saudi and Egyptian aegis, the Hamas representatives made it clear again that they would be ready to cooperate with the PA institutions, but only in the struggle against Israel, and that Hamas would even be willing to be part of the PA institutions, provided this did not entail a process of capitulation. Such a process, in the view of Hamas, is acceptance of the conditions laid down by Israel and the United States while the Israeli army is in most of the West Bank. In any event, those discussions did not reach a substantive stage: the liquidation of Salah Shehadeh set in motion a course of revenge that the leaders of the PA could not gainsay.

Nevertheless, the very fact that discussions took place, and the lack of enthusiasm that Arafat displayed about them, enables us to draw an inference about the relations between the two bodies. Even when the character of the activity is similar, the agenda of the PA and the Islamic organizations is different. The effect of viewing them as part of the same entity and placing all the responsibility on Arafat - even for the attacks carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad - has been to give these two organizations a senior status in the conduct of any political process. In effect, they are now dictating whether Arafat will be able to enter a political process, even if he introduces far-reaching reforms in his ranks.

It is true that PA personnel took part in terrorist attacks and that for a time a competition actually developed between the Tanzim - the Fatah militia - and Hamas and Islamic Jihad over which group could carry out the most attacks. However, whereas the PA did some soul-searching about both policy and politics, and reached the conclusion that the suicide bombings are causing the Palestinian harm, this is far from the case with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In fact, it is Israel that can be of assistance in rebuilding the sane Palestinian alternative. However, that course of action mandates a return to Yasser Arafat, a rapid renewal of the political process in a meaningful way and the rejuvenation of the PA's economic base and military force so that it can pose a serious alternative to the terrorist organizations. Such a process requires a new policy conception or, more accurately, a return to the conception that prevailed here less than two years ago.