Nedal Hujada and Abdul Sehwail represent the competing faces of Hamas as the militant Islamic group debates whether to give peace a chance. Its decision could determine whether...
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Nedal Hujada and Abdul Sehwail represent the competing faces of Hamas as the militant Islamic group debates whether to give peace a chance. Its decision could determine whether Israel and the Palestinians seize or squander the latest opportunity for peace.
Young Palestinians such as Hujada reject any talk of a cease-fire as long as Israeli soldiers remain in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
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Men such as Sehwail, a middle-aged high-school teacher, are willing to set aside violence and embrace democracy in a renewed bid to create an independent Palestinian state.
Continued Hamas attacks would undermine Palestine Liberation Organization head Mahmoud Abbas, the likely new Palestinian leader, and give Israel a reason to break off talks with Palestinians over a new independent state.
The internal power struggle of Hamas, one of the groups behind many of the deadly suicide bombings over the past four years, has been playing out in public since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death on Nov. 11 shifted the political dynamics.
After a short period of relative quiet, Hamas rejected appeals for a cease-fire, called for a boycott of the Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat and stepped up its attacks in the Gaza Strip, killing six Israeli soldiers this month, the worst death toll for the army since May.
Yet some Hamas candidates participating in local elections in parts of the West Bank this week see a chance to halt the violence.
Sehwail speaks of conciliation and endorses the tenuous calm holding in the West Bank.
“As long as the Israelis are far from here, there’s no need for violent resistance,” Sehwail said after a campaign rally in a small village near Ramallah.
But in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is planning to withdraw, Hujada sees no path but violent resistance.
“The Israeli army kills children and shows no mercy,” Hujada said at a Gaza City funeral for a slain Palestinian militant. “I can’t support a cease-fire.”
In the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef was among the Hamas leaders stumping for an Islamic slate of candidates in this week’s local elections, even though Hamas is boycotting the presidential vote next month.
“We are supporting free and open elections because getting something for our people is better than nothing,” said Yousef, who was released last month after two years in an Israeli prison. “At the same time, we are supporting the resistance.”
Yousef complained that the dominant Palestinian leadership from Arafat’s Fatah party set this week’s local elections in selected villages where support for the Islamic group is weak.
Publicly, Fatah leaders reject that notion and say there are few places where Hamas has strong enough support to win. Privately, some Fatah officials say they want to see who wins this week before setting the next round of elections in cities.
In the past four years, many Palestinians have soured on the group’s suicide-bombing campaign. Recent polls have found that, for the first time since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, most Palestinians oppose violence against Israel.
Even if support for Hamas is weaker, the group could undermine Arafat’s successor by pressing ahead with its attacks on Israeli soldiers or sending new suicide bombers into Israel.
Abbas, who is most likely to replace Arafat in next month’s election, said he is in no position to unify the competing armed militias that patrol the Gaza Strip. Unless he can curb attacks, not just on Israelis but also on rival factions, he could find himself caught between demands from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for an end to attacks and calls from Hamas for more concrete concessions in the peace process.
For much of the second Palestinian uprising, Hamas enjoyed widespread support, especially in the densely populated Gaza Strip, which largely embraced the Islamic group’s conservative religious philosophy. While efforts to establish an autonomous Palestinian government foundered, Hamas recruited suicide bombers who changed the course of the intifada by targeting Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Israel responded with decisive force. The military assassinated top Hamas leaders, forcing the survivors into hiding. Sharon authorized an unrelenting crackdown on Arafat’s headquarters that pushed the Palestinian leader into a corner.
Hamas also has to deal with the re-election of President Bush, who supports a two-state solution but also backs Israel’s campaign to target militants.
The new realities will make it difficult for Hamas to rebuild itself if it refuses to recognize the changes, said Palestinian legislator Ziab Abu Amr, an Abbas supporter in Gaza City.