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Despite enmity, Israel, Hamas expected to talk
San Francisco Chronicle


January 30, 2006

Hamas leaders say they never will negotiate with Israel, a state the militant group has pledged to destroy. Israeli leaders say they will not deal with Hamas, which swept to stunning victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections last week.

But in the crowded confines that Israel and the Palestinian territories occupy, confrontation is likely to take a back seat to the demands of day-to-day concerns, analysts say. And some say the inevitable interaction between the two sides - which once seemed impossible - may push Hamas and Israel toward broader cooperation.

"It's inevitable that Hamas will be dealing with Israel ... in matters relating to infrastructure - water, electricity, security, trade, crossing borders," said Naseer Aruri, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and a former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Committee.




Much of the Palestinian Authority's economy and infrastructure is tightly linked with Israel, which supplies the 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with water, electricity and telecommunications. Any Palestinian government that wants to improve the lives of its people - a pledge Hamas candidates made during the election and, according to opinion surveys, is a top priority for Palestinian voters - will have to deal with Israel on such issues as utilities, border crossings, imports and exports.

But Israel cannot ignore Palestinian needs, either, unless it is prepared to endure an upsurge in violence, said Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and a member of then-President Bill Clinton's negotiating team at Camp David in 2000.

"It's not clear that the Israelis would benefit from the breakdown of Palestinian Authority, which would bring chaos, instability, renewed violence against Israel," Malley said.

In fact, examples of cooperation between Hamas and Israeli officials already exist, he said. In the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, which sits on the border between Israel and the West Bank, acting mayor and Hamas functionary Hashem al-Masri has been talking with Israeli officials, negotiating the flow of electricity, garbage removal and sewage grids, said Malley, who visited al-Masri this month.

"He told us: 'If I have to communicate with them, I communicate with them,' " Malley said.

If the leaders of the two sides understand that such contact is inevitable, they are not showing it yet, at least publicly. On Friday, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert again ruled out negotiations with a Hamas government "if even part of it is an armed terrorist organization calling for the destruction of the state of Israel."

Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of the Hamas movement in Syria, responded by pledging to continue resistance against the Israeli presence in the West Bank and military forays into the Gaza Strip.

"As long as there is occupation and so long as our people's rights are usurped, our stand will remain as it is. We would resist the occupation to restore our rights," Abu Marzouk told the Associated Press.

Some experts say Israel's tough talk is prompted at least partially by Israeli parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 28. Olmert's moderate Kadima party will compete against the hard-line Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu. The incapacitation of charismatic Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the founder of Kadima who suffered a massive stroke early this month, makes Israel's political situation even more unsettled.

"The last thing that Olmert needs now is to provide ammunition to Likud to say: 'Olmert is advocating negotiations with Hamas,' " said Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "Until March 28, there will be very tough rhetoric. After that, I think that of course everybody will have to begin to adjust to realities."

Surveys suggest that a majority of Israelis support talking to a Palestinian government led by Hamas.

At the same time, Palestinian polls have consistently shown that majorities in the West Bank and Gaza believe in a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, signaling that most Palestinians will not be opposed to negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

And if Hamas wants to realize its election promises to restore order to lawless streets, cut unemployment and improve infrastructure, it will have to make concessions and deal with Israel, said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad agent and co-editor of, an Israeli-Palestinian political Web-based magazine.

One possibility, he said, is that Hamas sets up "a government of technocrats, so that we can talk to the prime minister or the minister of finance because they're not from Hamas," Alpher said. "But for that, Hamas would have to agree that even though it won the elections, it will stay on the sidelines ... basically admitting that they can't run Palestine."

Another option is that Hamas manages internal Palestinian affairs while delegating the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the legal agent for negotiations with Israel, to talk to Israelis on all issues pertaining to infrastructure, said George Bisharat, a Palestinian activist and an adviser to the Oakland, Calif.-based Institute for Middle East Understanding.

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said last week that his group would consider talks with Israel through a third party, and mentioned the PLO as a potential mediator.

"Ultimately, both parties will have to deal with each other," Bisharat said.


E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen(at)
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