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Saturday, June 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Who's running Hamas?


DAMASCUS, Syria — Who runs Hamas?

It's a simple question, but the answer is complex. Hamas has many facets: a religious movement, a network of social services and a guerrilla group engaged in terrorism. After winning parliamentary elections in January, it is now the dominant faction in the Palestinian government.

But Hamas does not act like a typical political party. Above all else, it is a guerrilla movement and it continues to function in the secretive, shadowy way of most insurgent groups. "To survive underground, groups like Hamas cannot encourage internal dialogue or dissent. They must remain hierarchical and highly disciplined," said Marwan Kabalan, a political scientist at Damascus University. "The next test for Hamas is whether it can fully mature into a political movement. Will its leaders be pragmatic enough to survive in government?"

Syrian exiles

Most day-to-day decisions within Hamas are made by its political bureau, which has eight to 10 members who mainly live in exile in Syria. The bureau is chaired by Khaled Mashaal, a soft-spoken former physics teacher who is the group's supreme political leader. Hamas also has a Shura Council, an internal parliament made up of about 50 members who live inside and outside the Palestinian territories.

The council has final say on major policy moves. But the council generally cannot meet in one place at one time because many of its members are unable to travel into the Palestinian territories — the West Bank and Gaza — for fear of assassination. So the leadership consults via e-mails, faxes, cellphones and coded messages.

Hands on the till

The political bureau in Syria draws its strength from being Hamas' main fundraising arm and managing relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Some Arab diplomats and officials say that makes Mashaal and his inner circle more pragmatic than the Hamas leadership within the territories. But this also could mean that, with Hamas in power, splits could emerge between the internal and external leaders.

Among the most prominent internal Hamas leaders are Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian prime minister; Mahmoud al-Zahar, the new foreign minister; and Saeed Siyam, the new interior minister. Al-Zahar and Siyam are former members of the political bureau.

Arab officials who monitor Hamas say a major question is how much control Mashaal has over the entire organization, especially militants inside the West Bank and Gaza.

"Hamas is not an entirely cohesive organization: There is a political wing abroad, a political wing inside the territories and a military wing," an Arab diplomat in Damascus said. "Each of these wings represents a different trend within Hamas."

For now, the diplomat said, much of the power rests with the exiled leaders. "The political bureau makes most decisions by itself," the diplomat said. "These are decisions that need to be made quickly. ... There's no time for bickering."

"The entire group is hard-line. There is no moderate Hamas," said an Arab security official who monitors militant groups and spoke on condition of anonymity. "It varies from pragmatic to less pragmatic. No one is going to rise into the leadership ranks of Hamas by openly advocating negotiations with Israel."

Since it won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature, Hamas has been headed for a confrontation with the international community. It is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Israel and the West are demanding that it renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and promise to abide by past peace agreements, such as the 1993 Oslo Accords. Hamas leaders have refused.

Israeli officials are ruling out any dialogue with a Palestinian government led by Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings since the mid-1990s. After Hamas leaders took office in April, Western officials cut off aid until the group lays down its arms and recognizes Israel. More than half of the Palestinian Authority's $2 billion annual budget comes from foreign donors, with the largest portions from Europe and the United States.

No concessions

While they refuse to detail the group's decision-making and leadership structure, Hamas officials are quick to announce there are no internal divisions over strategy. Three days after its Jan. 25 election victory, Mashaal vowed that Hamas would not make concessions to appease the West.

"We are ready to work with Europe, and even America," he said at a Damascus news conference. "But they must be willing to engage us as we are, and not as they want us to be." He insisted that Hamas would not disarm unless Israel agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Despite Mashaal's proclamations, there are signs of a schism between him and internal Hamas leaders. In April, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — who leads the rival Fatah movement — vetoed Hamas' plan to integrate some of its militants into Palestinian security forces. Mashaal denounced Abbas as a traitor, but other Hamas leaders distanced themselves from his comments.

Now Abbas has given Hamas an ultimatum either to recognize Israel by this weekend or face a referendum on the issue.

Military reins

Hamas political leaders such as Mashaal go to great lengths to explain that they do not issue orders to the group's military wing, which carries out suicide bombings and other attacks. The political leadership does provide broad strategy for the military wing. For example, it allows the use of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, one of the tactics that earned Hamas its designation as a terrorist group.

"Hamas has a strong command-and-control structure, with a very disciplined military wing," said the Arab security official. "The military wing works in small cells of six or seven people. And local commanders in the territories are able to organize operations on their own, but they wait for a final go-ahead from top commanders."

In its 1988 founding charter, Hamas called for the destruction of Israel and creation of a Palestinian state, not just in the West Bank and Gaza — lands occupied by Israel after the 1967 Middle East war — but covering the entire area of British-mandate Palestine, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. "The land of Palestine is an Islamic endowment for Muslim generations until the Day of Judgment," says the Hamas charter. "It is prohibited to abandon it, or to concede any part of it."

The bigger picture

Israelis fear that even if a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas still would refuse to give up its arms and would fight for its larger goal: the elimination of Israel.

That fuels the current impasse in which Israel refuses to deal with Hamas until it disavows violence and recognizes the Jewish state. But Hamas refuses to give up the bargaining chip of its arms before Israel commits to withdrawing from all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

One Hamas official in Beirut, Lebanon, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group's political bureau has decided it would not yield to current Western pressures and the cutoffs in aid. "The leadership views these American and European demands as a trap," the official said. "Hamas can't give up its commitment to the resistance in exchange for promises of peace negotiations that will lead nowhere. Hamas would lose its popular legitimacy."

Foreign patrons

Hamas' foreign protectors help it maintain its hard-line positions. The Syrian regime has allowed leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel to operate from Damascus for two decades. In turn, Hamas' election victory bolstered Syrian President Bashar Assad in his own confrontation with the United States.

In recent years, Hamas has developed close ties with Iran, a Syrian ally also at odds with Washington, D.C. Last month, Iran pledged to make up for $50 million in tax revenues Israel withheld after Hamas took control of the Palestinian government.

"If Hamas leaders are going to take a more pragmatic approach, they must distance themselves from Syria and Iran," said Kabalan, the political scientist. "For their own reasons, Syria and Iran are going to urge Hamas to continue its confrontation with the West."

Mashaal's role

The Arab diplomat said Mashaal could be the only Hamas leader with enough clout to break the impasse. He rose to prominence in 1997, and became the group's top leader in 2004, after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi.

Mashaal could rely less on Syria and Iran, the diplomat said, and continue contacts with Egypt. With access to top American and Israeli officials, Egypt has been a key mediator among Palestinian factions.

"Within Hamas, Mashaal could try to sell a long-term truce with Israel by saying that it's a tactical move and not an ideological shift," the diplomat said. "He could say, 'We won't officially end armed resistance, but we'll put it on hold. And we'll resume negotiations by proxy.' ... It's going to be a difficult sell to both sides, but Mashaal has to start somehow."

Hamas has shown a willingness to adopt truces when they serve its interests. For example, the group signed on to a cease-fire by Palestinian factions with Israel that was negotiated last year under Egyptian auspices. But Hamas militants canceled that truce Friday after a barrage of Israeli artillery shells tore into Palestinians at a beachside picnic in the Gaza Strip, killing seven civilians.

Abbas' ultimatum and an end to the latest truce were reported by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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