A Self-confident Hamas

This time it will be difficult for Hamas to rebuff the regular charges of the Palestinian Authority leadership that Hamas operations are meant to directly attack the official Palestinian leadership.

This time it will be difficult for Hamas to rebuff the regular charges of the Palestinian Authority leadership that Hamas operations are meant to directly attack the official Palestinian leadership.

The attacks during the Oslo years, until 2000, said official Palestinian spokesmen, were sometimes timed to coincide with expectations of a redeployment of IDF forces in the West Bank or at the height of negotiations over various articles of the interim agreements. In the past two years, the attacks took place when there were various mediation efforts. The Park Hotel bombing on Passover eve in 2002 was timed to coincide with the Arab League summit in Beirut, called to discuss the Saudi Arabian peace initiative.

Hamas has always rejected those charges. It's just a coincidence, they say. It's a long, complicated procedure to plan, organize, and execute a suicide bombing, so the deliberate timing of an attack is impossible. But this time, the dispatch of three Hebronites on their missions the night of the first meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan with Ariel Sharon and then the day afterward speaks for itself. The geographic choices for the attacks also can strengthen the claim they were meant to embarrass Abbas and Dahlan no less than they were meant to kill Israelis and win prestige points among Palestinians in the ongoing duel between them and the Israeli security services.

The two attacks on Saturday and Sunday morning, in which nine Israelis were killed, are part of the Palestinian consensus about legitimate military activity in the framework of the legitimate campaign against the occupation: Both were in areas Israel occupied in 1967. By Palestinian definition, Pisgat Ze'ev, from which Egged bus No. 6 departed on Sunday morning, is a settlement and not a Jerusalem neighborhood. The nine dead (not counting the Palestinian from Shuafat refugee camp) are settlers - whether from Pisgat Ze'ev or from Kiryat Arba-Hebron. The third Hebronite blew himself up inside the territory occupied in 1967 (though it's impossible to know what he intended as his final destination). While the Palestinians have no mercy for the dead Israeli civilians because, as they say, Israel is constantly striking at Palestinian civilians without anyone protesting, they are prepared to participate in a debate over the "efficiency" of attacks inside Israel. But for the large majority, every settler - old, woman or child - is part of the occupying army.

The Saturday-Sunday attacks are not only testimony to the Hamas ability to ensnare Abbas and Dahlan (with whom the Hamas has a long history of clashes) and to thumb their noses at the Israeli security services, nor merely the technical capability for renewed terror. It also shows Hamas feels its position in the Palestinian public is firm. Abbas' appointment as premier raised meager hopes among the Palestinians that Israel would respond with "abatements" of the tough internal closure, which totally limits any Palestinian travel between its villages and towns.

Not all the abatements that Israel hurried to announce were actually implemented (particularly the increased number of travel permits and work permits for Israel). But there were reports from some parts of the West Bank and Gaza that the internal closures were somewhat loosened. The Hamas people know very well how much the Palestinian public hopes for a lengthy lull of the conditions of the the internal siege imposed by Israel.

But Hamas, like every Palestinian, knows the automatic Israeli response to an attack is to tighten the internal siege, or immediate cancelation of abatements that had been implemented or just announced. Hamas, therefore, not only refuses "to give a chance" to the Abbas-Dahlan government, it is signaling to the people that there is no significance to short-term abatements, a slight relaxation of the suffering.

Since the establishment of the PA in 1994, Hamas has swung between its political-military-religious platform, calling for a struggle against "the occupation of all of Palestine," and its ability to pay attention to the mood in the Palestinian public, which wants to see a normal solution in its lifetime and not in some illusory mythological future. When it did hold fire, or avoided escalating the power struggle with the PA, it was not because of steps Yasser Arafat and his security apparatus took against the Hamas activists (mass arrests without trial, firings, intimidation and paying them off with jobs); it was also - and perhaps primarily - out of awareness that Hamas, as a movement that takes pride in its grass-roots support, could not alienate itself from the public.

Despite the immediate harm to Palestinian expectations for relief from the pressures imposed by Israel, Hamas is convinced the public will not harbor resentment against it. The public will continue to blame the Israeli occupation regime for its suffering and not the Hamas actions, which as far as the Palestinians are concerned are legitimate reactions for civilian deaths at the hands of the IDF in its attacks in Gaza particularly, which have not ceased since Abbas was appointed. So strong is Hamas, that it allows itself to damage the short-term expectations of the Palestinian public.