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Hamas Feels Pressure to Moderate Stance


Hamas leaders are sending mixed signals - part moderation, part defiance - as they prepare to form a new Palestinian government in the weeks ahead. The militant Islamic group is well aware of increasing international pressure to moderate its stance.

There is no doubt Hamas can draw a crowd, mostly young men carrying Kalashnikovs in one hand and waving the green banner of Hamas in the other. Thousands of its supporters took to the streets after last month's elections, reveling in their victory.

Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the legislature, toppling the ruling Fatah party, which dominated Palestinian politics for more than four decades.

Farhat Asaad was Hamas' campaign manager.

"We expected a majority or near-majority, but we did not expect a big majority as what happened," he said. "I think the reason our population voted to [for] Hamas, because they have to change the leadership because it failed."

Founded in the late 1980s during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Hamas staked out a position based on strident militancy in the fight against Israel and on grassroots support for the Palestinian public, especially the poor.

Hamas refused to recognize Israel's right to exist and opposed the Oslo peace accords signed by Yasser Arafat in 1993. To this day the Hamas charter calls for Israel's destruction, and Hamas leaders like Mahmoud Zahar still talk about Israel as a foreign entity in this region.

Speaking on Arab television after the election, Zahar said it was not Hamas that came from outside to take Jewish land. He blamed the West for planting, what he called this foreign and aggressive body in the heart of the Middle East.

Hamas' many deadly attacks against Israelis during the second intifada, which began more than five years ago put its leaders high on Israel's target list. In 2004 Israel assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and then his successor, Abdelaziz Rantisi.

Afterwards, other Hamas leaders inside the Palestinian territories and in exile kept a low profile. The group has largely adhered to a cease-fire agreed to between the Palestinian Authority and Israel a year ago - and turned its attention to the ballot box.

Hamas candidates scored surprising victories in municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank during the past year, before winning an outright parliamentary majority last month.

The Hamas victory presents a dilemma for Israel, the Europeans and the Americans - all of whom brand Hamas a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with the group unless it disarms, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and pursues peace.

Farhat Asaad expresses the feelings of many Palestinians and Arabs when he talks of what they see as the West's double standard in the region.

"The West demand us to recognize the [Israeli] occupation, but they never [demand] the Israeli [occupation] to recognize our rights," he said.

Responding to growing international pressure, Hamas leaders remain adamant they will not change their position, but they also hint at a more pragmatic approach.

In Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, a hardliner, said Hamas could consider a longer truce with Israel, if the Jewish state reciprocated.

Gaza's more moderate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said there should be no fear of Hamas.

Haniyeh also called on donors not to cut off aid to the Palestinians. He promised such funds would be spent only on legitimate programs to help the people.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal spoke of Israel as a reality and said the group would respect existing agreements as long as they are in the interests of the Palestinians.

Hamas leaders are on a public relations campaign to calm jittery nerves at home and abroad. They insist they want to form a government based on ability, not religion.

Farhat Asaad says Hamas wants to work with others as it prepares to govern, but he also has a warning for the West and the pressure it is exerting.

"The one who will come after us will be bin Laden," he added. "It is the choice of the West, not our choice."

Asaad says if the West causes Hamas to fail, a more radical leadership is likely to follow. But, he also remains optimistic that some sort of dialogue will be established and agreement reached. "It is in everyone's interest", he says.

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