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Hamas Issue Confounds Mideast Peace Planners

One wing of the militant group attacks Israelis, but others provide tens of thousands of Palestinians with health and other social services.

June 29, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Now that Israel and the Palestinians have worked out a tentative deal to begin implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, the fate of the initiative may hang on the answer to a pivotal question: what to do about Hamas?

The looming problem is that the major players in the new peace initiative provide vastly different answers. Some want to abolish the Palestinian militant group. Others want to offer it options, including a chance to transform itself and continue to provide social services to tens of thousands of Palestinians.

A proposed three-month agreement by Hamas and other major militant groups to halt attacks on Israel may only defer the issue temporarily.

"It's enormously important how you deal with Hamas. It could be the difference between success and failure for the road map," said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution fellow and the Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Israel, backed by the United States, wants Hamas eliminated in all forms as a basic precondition for restoration of trust and the return of occupied territory. Because Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement by a Palestinian state, the premise of Israel's approach is that peace can be possible only when Hamas is eradicated. For the Israelis, a cease-fire only puts off what they view as the inevitable need for either Israel or the Palestinians to crush the organization.

"The Palestinian Authority must fight terrorist organizations. It must disarm them. It must make sure that their infrastructure no longer exists," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a joint news conference after meeting Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on June 20.

President Bush has used virtually identical language. "In order for there to be peace, Hamas must be dismantled," he told reporters Wednesday.

The Palestinian Authority, backed by key European countries and pivotal U.N. members, favors a compromise that would persuade Hamas to disarm and end all forms of violence but might allow it to continue providing a network of schools, health services, food banks, charities, youth groups and even sports programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are no alternative services in many areas.

"The talk about dismantling factions is a flagrant call for a civil war that is rejected by the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority and by the factions, and it will never happen," Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, told Reuters after Bush's comments.

The Palestinian Authority and some European governments contend that, given the right incentives, Hamas can be transformed from a guerrilla organization to a political one in the same way the Palestine Liberation Organization was when it renounced terrorism and recognized the state of Israel more than a decade ago.

"The Europeans have traditionally distinguished between the terrorist wing of Hamas and the political and social wings. We don't lump them into one group like the Americans," said a senior European diplomat.

Hamas differs from other militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which also have tentatively agreed to suspend attacks on Israel. All have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel that have killed almost 800 Israelis during the 33-month uprising. But Hamas also puts heavy emphasis on its social welfare and educational programs.

In a controversial form of aid, Hamas provides funds to the families of so-called martyrs who have carried out suicide bombings. But with help from funds raised abroad, its welfare branches also dole out vast sums for the unemployed -- in a society with about 70% unemployment.

"Cutting off Hamas social services and charitable donations would almost immediately lead to a major breakdown in basic services and welfare in the Palestinian Authority. The impact would be devastating," said the European diplomat.

Europeans say that could trigger deeper radicalization -- at a time polls indicate that growing numbers of Palestinians question the tactics of violence in pressuring Israel.

As a result, the European Union resisted pressure from the White House at a U.S.-EU summit in Washington on Wednesday to put a freeze on all funds raised in or passing through Europe destined for Hamas social and political activities.

Bush urged European leaders "to take swift, decisive action against terror groups such as Hamas, to cut off their funding and support, as the United States has done."

The EU did put the military wing of Hamas on a list of proscribed terrorist organizations. And the EU provides no funds for the other wings of Hamas.

But Europeans, led by France, argue that it is difficult to track and block funds that are raised in or go through their countries for other purposes.

"What would be the legal basis for blocking funds or prosecuting organizations if the money goes to humanitarian organizations?" asked a senior French diplomat.

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