After four years of turbulent rule in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas is weighing a new strategy of not directly participating in future governments even if it wins elections — an approach aimed at avoiding isolation by the world community and allowing for continued economic aid.
Hamas officials told The Associated Press the idea has gained favor in recent closed meetings of the secretive movement's leadership in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt and Syria, and that it helped enable last month's reconciliation agreement with the rival Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Talks on implementing that accord have dragged on, particularly over the makeup of a "unity government." The agreement envisions a government of nonpolitical technocrats — in line with Hamas' emerging thinking — but Abbas wants to retain current premier Salam Fayyad, a respected economist viewed by Hamas as a political figure.
The new approach reflects both the group's rigidity and its pragmatism: On the one hand, Hamas refuses to meet widespread global demands that it accept Israel's right to exist; on the other, its leaders grasp the price Palestinians would pay if the Islamic militants emerged fully in charge of a future government.
It also stems from a growing sense that its experiment with direct government in Gaza has cost Hamas popular support among Palestinians.
"Hamas found that being in government caused huge damage to the movement, and therefore it has changed its policy," said a top participant in the Hamas talks, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the extreme sensitivity of the issue.
Some Palestinians criticize Hamas for softening its "resistance" by not carrying out a suicide bombing in years in a bid to gain some international legitimacy. Others charge that its rocket attacks on Israel have worsened Gaza's isolation and impoverishment.
Some bristle at the stricter Islamic lifestyle imposed on the coastal strip, where alcohol is now hard to find, while others think this hasn't gone far enough.
A survey in March by respected pollster Khalil Shikaki shows Hamas — which handily won elections in 2006 — now has the support of only 26 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, compared to 40 percent for Fatah. The survey of 1,200 people had a margin of error of three percentage points. Other surveys show an even steeper decline in popular backing.
As a result, "Hamas is re-evaluating its choices and resetting its priorities," said Yehya Mussa, a prominent Hamas lawmaker. "Being in government was a burden on Hamas, a burden on the image of Hamas, a burden on its resistance enterprise."
Proponents of the new strategy appear to include Khaled Mashal, Hamas' Syria-based political leader. Most opposition initially came from Hamas' military and political circles in the West Bank and Gaza, but that now appears to be waning.
The issue could come into the open during elections in August for the Hamas political leadership. The vote takes place quietly in mosques and Hamas institutions inside and outside of the Palestinian territories, with the number of council members — believed to be no more than two dozen — being one of the movement's secrets.
Hamas officials say the new direction may never be formally announced, but will be reflected in the militant group's decisions — for example, if it chooses not to field a candidate in presidential elections. The reconciliation agreement envisages new Palestinian presidential and legislative elections within a year.
Those privy to the discussions say Hamas would run for parliament — and for the various institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that represents all Palestinians, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza.
The new strategy could apply both to next year's elections for the autonomy institutions of the Palestinian Authority, as well as to those of an independent Palestine, which Palestinians hope to establish in the near future.
The goal, officials say, would be to exert as much influence as possible while remaining outside of day-to-day government. Hamas says it would not dismantle its Gaza militia, a force of tens of thousands of fighters armed with rockets, anti-tank missiles and other powerful weapons.
The great concern is that a Hamas-run Palestinian government would not be able to raise the money from donor nations to pay for the more than 180,000 people on the public payroll in the West Bank and Gaza, officials say.
According to Palestinian Authority figures, running the Palestinian government costs $3.2 billion, about a third of which comes from foreign donor nations and another third from tax money transferred by Israel based on previous agreements — a source that could also dry up under a Hamas administration.
It is not clear whether Western donor nations would agree to fund such an administration since parliament, under current and likely future laws, can dismiss the government and therefore is, in effect, above it.
It also seems unlikely that Israel would agree to deal with a government that owed its existence to a Hamas-dominated parliament, even if no Hamas members served in the Cabinet.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said: "What Hamas needs to do is first and foremost accept the three benchmarks" demanded by the world community — accepting Israel, forswearing terrorism and embracing past Israeli-Palestinian accords.
Fatah is also watching the Hamas developments warily.
After its 2006 victory in legislative elections, Hamas sought a role in running the Palestinian Authority; after a short-lived unity government with Fatah, in 2007 it seized the Gaza Strip by force, resulting in two rival Palestinian governments.
Under Hamas, Gaza has endured global isolation, economic blockade and occasional skirmishes with Israel. In a bid to stop persistent rocket fire from the territory, Israel launched a full-scale monthlong offensive in December 2008, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians.
In the West Bank under Abbas, the moderate Fayyad government concentrated on state-building and the economy, raised cash, maintained the peace with Israel and won global plaudits and recognition.
Fatah also cracked down on Hamas in the West Bank: some 300 Hamas-affiliated charities were closed and more than 4,000 Hamas activists jailed. Property and weapons were confiscated. Under the reconciliation agreement these steps will be slowly reversed.
Some in Fatah fear Hamas may be able to use its new freedom to regain popular support in the West Bank. Even without running the government they could hold sway in much the same way the Syrian-backed Hezbollah dominates in parts of Lebanon.
"Many within Fatah are worried about the Hamas plans," said Azzam Ahmed, the chief Fatah negotiator to the reconciliation talks. "But ... we wanted to achieve out national unity and that's the biggest goal."
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