Hamas may give peace a chanceToward a Mideast cease-fire
RAMALLAH, West Bank Two unlikely factors - the maneuverings of Hamas, a group the United States considers a chief sponsor of terrorism, and a widespread fear of chaos among Palestinians - are combining to create some hope in the run-up to next month's election to choose Yasser Arafat's successor as head of the Palestinian Authority.
The best news is that Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor as leader of the Fatah faction, has emerged as the candidate favored not only by Israel and the United States, but also by the European Union and, most surprisingly, by Hamas. On Tuesday, Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - called for an end to the four-year-old intifada, saying that the "the use of weapons is harmful and it should stop."
Hamas leaders, who would be expected to fight against any such compromise, actually worked behind the scenes to undermine the candidacy of Abbas' main rival, Marwan Barghouti, the jailed intifada leader who is a beacon to the younger generation of Fatah militants. He withdrew from the race on Dec. 12.
Although Barghouti is in spirit closer than Abbas to Hamas, the group's leaders decided that his candidacy was interfering with formation of a Palestinian political consensus and could have led to political anarchy. The fact is, with the intifada bearing little fruit in terms of Israeli concessions, Hamas is now embroiled in infighting. Its West Bank leaders are leaning toward historic compromise, while its Gaza militants want to step up violence.
As Arafat lay dying, the principal leaders agreed to jettison their longstanding refusal to cooperate with any government that was involved with the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Most significant, the top Hamas leader on the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yussef, declared that the group should consider an indefinite "hudna" - or pause in armed conflict - if Israel were to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, approve a right of return for Palestinian refugees, release long-term prisoners and raze the wall being built in the West Bank.
While these conditions are of course unacceptable to Israel, the fact that a hudna was offered at all was remarkable. Yussef, who was released in November after more than two years in an Israeli prison, insisted that he was simply reiterating positions stated in the past by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder who was assassinated by Israel in March. But this may be semantic sleight-of-hand: Yussef told me last week that "hudna" clearly meant that both sides in the lifelong conflict could live in safety and peace as long as it lasts, and that it could even be extended indefinitely. "We can dream about all Palestine being Muslim - like some Israelis dream of a Greater Israel that includes all our lands - but it is not practical," he said.
Of course, Yussef faces opposition from within. Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said there would be "no talk about a hudna now" and that his group's "strategy is to liberate all of Palestine." Soon enough, Hamas bombs killed five Israeli soldiers in Gaza; that was followed by Israeli army raids that killed several Palestinians.
But the Gaza faction may be on the wrong side of history. A poll this month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Fatah gaining popular support in Gaza and the West Bank while Hamas's favorable rating fell.
Yussef seems to represent a chance that Hamas may enter the political mainstream. "We must take responsibility, along with Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, in taking care of our people," he told me. "And that means we must also negotiate with the Israelis."
The main problem is that each side demands that the other announce a truce first. "If I advocated a unilateral cease-fire - proclaiming that we will not attack Israelis if Israelis do not attack us - then my political influence would end," Yussef said. And Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is just as much a captive to politics - he, too, would not survive in his own party if he unilaterally declared a cease-fire.
How to break the stalemate? The United States and Europe, working in tandem with Israel and the Palestinian leaders, could perhaps broker a mutually declared cease-fire, a first step toward indefinite hudna and Yussef's "dialogue of civilizations." A tall order, indeed, but at least it now seems that Hamas is willing to listen, and wants to give democracy a chance.
(Scott Atran, a research scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and at the University of Michigan, is the author of ‘‘In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.’’)