Spin Cycle / And Do They Still Want Us Dead?

With Islamic Jihad, you know where you stand. They want you dead. It's part of a worldwide movement of wanting you dead. But with Hamas, knowing where you stand is less cut and dried.

With Islamic Jihad, you know where you stand. They want you dead. It's part of a worldwide movement of wanting you dead.

They take orders from people in Damascus who want you dead, people in Tehran who want you dead, people south of Beirut who want you dead.

With Hamas, knowing where you stand is less cut and dried.

With infinitely more support, personnel, Sitzfleisch, than the Jihad, with more ideological independence, and a network of free medical clinics and free schools, it almost makes you wonder about the "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" and the second graders they dress up and parade around in fatigues and miniature M-16?s and garlands of plastic grenades.

Now as Hamas prepares to enter the Palestinian parliament, and perhaps the cabinet, it's time to ask - Will the real Hamas please stand up?

Forget the learned punditry. It all comes down to this: Does Hamas, in fact, want you dead?

On the one hand, there?s Nouvelle Hamas, Hamas Lite, the latter-day Islamic Resistance Movement of conciliatory if studiously ambiguous statements.

The poster boy for the New Hamas is Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir, of the leprechaun orange beard, who dispenses homespun medical advice as he chats amicably, disarmingly with reporters on the Palestinian campaign trail. The color of his beard and hair? Henna.

It's proven itself good for dandruff, he observes. Even seems to have helped ease the migraines he once suffered.Then there's Hamas Classic. The Hamas of Khaled Mashal. No negotiations. No clever wording. No part of "No" to misunderstand.

"We don?t have to make concessions to satisfy Israel," Mashal said this week, "Our position now is not to negotiate with Israel. We will not kowtow."

There was a time, starting with Hamas' founding at the very outset of the first intifada, when it was no problem to know where you stood with them. They wanted you dead and/or gone from here. They had decided that we were all either from Russia or America, and we could all go back there now, thank you very much.

At first they weren't prepared to do anything about it. They were later on, though. With a vengeance. Either because we killed their master bombmaker with an exploding cell phone to the ear, or in order to show their continued explosive capability, or both, they decided to decide the 1996 election and put Benjamin Netanyahu in power. It took them nine days. Four bombs, Ashkelon, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. Sixty deaths. Hundreds and hundreds of injured.

Feeling somewhat guilty about having helped them in the early 1980s, when we thought them to be apolitical, anti-Marxist, useful, we tried everything to stop them. Exiling 400 of them to a snowy, windblown hilltop in south Lebanon, including their pediatrician/president Abdel Aziz Rantisi, did nothing to deter them. We tried assassinating them, pressing the Palestinian Authority to jail them, pressing the PA to stop releasing them soon thereafter, assassinating them and assassinating them and ssassinating them.

Now we're at a loss. They're about to join the cabinet next door, and there?s nothing we can do about it.Can we trust them? The question is academic. We won't trust them. We'll give good reasons why not. Take Sheikh Abu Tir. Now 55, he's spent most of his adult life in Israeli administrative detention or otherwise jailed for weapons possession, membership in a terrorist organization, and/or directing activities of Hamas' armed wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam.

"Israel respects us when we are strong," Khaled Mashal told a television interviewer. "This requires a long battle."

Any way you look at it, however, the battle has changed. The last time Hamas launched a suicide bombing was in August 2004.

The tone has changed as well. Even the unbending Mahmoud Zahar, whose son was killed in an Israeli air stike and who narrowly escaped assassination himself, has given a measure of ground in recent statements.

"Negotiation is not a taboo," Zahar told reporters this week. "Negotiations are a means. If Israel has anything to offer on the issues of halting attacks, withdrawal, releasing prisoners ... then 1,000 means can be found."

But a campaign is a campaign, and Zahar couldn't resist a dig at the rival Fatah party. "The political crime is when we sit with the Israelis and then come out with a wide smile to tell the Palestinian people that there is progress, when in fact, there is not."

Oddly, the only moderating influence that seems to have consistently worked on Hamas is Palestinian public opinion. The group has entered politics, and even for those unafraid of a martyr's death, there is little more terrifying for a politician than his own constituents."You are about to enter the Authority. We welcome you," Fatah Gaza leader Mohammed Dahlan told Zahar on the eve of the elections. "It's time for you to discover the suffering of being in government."