One question that emerges as Israeli and Palestinian leaders hold talks on a possible peace agreement is what future role Hamas will play.  The militant Islamist group controls the Gaza Strip, but refuses to take part in the peace process, partly because its leaders believe negotiations brokered by Washington are biased in favor of Israel.

This narrow strip on the Mediterranean is home to more than a million Palestinians, none of whom is represented in the current round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Leading them is Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that rejects Israel's right to exist and demands the return of Palestinian lands.

Hamas sees nothing to be gained in talks

Hamas spokesman Fauzi Barhoum says the group's leaders see no point in negotiating with the Jewish state. "Hamas is not going to participate in this crime and it is not going to make the face of the occupation beautiful and it is not going to give them legitimacy on our land," said Barhoum.

Hamas launched a series of attacks on Israelis just before negotiations began in early September.  Four Israelis died in this attack near the West Bank city of Hebron.  

Analysts say the target also was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival moderate Fatah faction that runs the occupied West Bank.

"What Hamas is hoping to accomplish is to appeal to the Palestinian population, many of whom oppose these talks as well, and remind them that the president [Mahmoud Abbas] doesn't enjoy legitimacy and he should be minded not to negotiate away the future of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for statehood," noted Beverley Milton-Edwards, a Britain-based researcher on Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority led by Mr. Abbas has cracked down on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting hundreds over the past few weeks.  

The U.S. and others consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas leaders say the group will continue attacks as long as the negotiations are under way.  

Gaza has faced political and economic isolation since Israel established an embargo four years ago after Hamas seized power. Some think it is time to end the isolation.

"The Israeli siege will continue until the talks succeed," said a Gaza resident.  "The success of the talks will mean the establishment of the Palestinian state led by Palestinians. Hamas has to find a way to be a part of the Palestinian Authority."

For Hamas, taking part in talks now is out of the question.  "We in Hamas will adhere to the option of resistance because the Zionist enemy understands only that language," said spokesman Barhoum.

Isolation versus engagement

With hundreds of its members in prisons in the West Bank and with the Israeli embargo strongly in place, analysts say Hamas is in no position, militarily, to derail the talks. But others believe its ability to undermine the peace process should not be underestimated.

"Hamas have been signaling to the international community and reminding them that they haven't gone away, that they haven't been defeated and that whilst you can have a peace process without Hamas, you will never have implementation of a peace agreement without Hamas," added Beverley Milton-Edwards.

Dealing with the question of Gaza and its more than one million residents is one of the biggest challenges facing Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, one that will be difficult to ignore.

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