June 19, 2008 / 4:33 PM / 11 years ago

Hamas gains attention, challenges from truce

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hamas has won a measure of the international recognition it sought by indirectly negotiating a truce with Israel but faces a challenge keeping other Palestinian militant factions in line in the Gaza Strip.

Shunned by Israel and major Western powers for refusing to renounce violence against the Jewish state after their 2006 election victory, Hamas Islamists have gradually chipped away at their isolation, tightened after routing forces loyal to Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas and seizing Gaza a year ago.

Though Israeli officials say their goal of curbing Hamas’s power is unchanged even if the ceasefire sees an easing for now of an economic blockade on Gaza, Western diplomats and some Israeli insiders consider the truce a boost to Hamas’s standing at Israel’s and Abbas’s expense.

“This all puts Hamas back in the saddle,” said a senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Hamas becomes an interlocutor again and gets international and regional recognition,” the official said, adding that it also reinforced Hamas’s position in discussions on promoting reconciliation between the Islamists and Abbas.

“It shows the lack of authority of Abu Mazen (Abbas), who wanted Hamas to be brought to its knees and has now had to relaunch the national reconciliation process with them.”

Robert Serry, the United Nations special envoy to the Middle East, said the truce showed that there was no way to “circumvent the reality that there is a de facto regime in Gaza”.

Serry told Reuters that he hoped the truce with Israel and possible reconciliation talks with Abbas “will mean for Hamas an opportunity to get out of its isolation”.

“DAMAGE DONE”

Underscoring the hostility of some in Israel to the accord, however, a columnist in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said Israel’s decision to negotiate, even indirectly, with Hamas was comparable to opening talks with Hitler in 1940.

Dov Weissglas, who served as chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Hamas leaders conducted negotiations and set conditions for a truce with Israel “like equals among equals”, boosting its standing.

Even if the ceasefire breaks down as many expect, Weissglas said the diplomatic “damage” was done. “International recognition, even if it is not full recognition, of the Hamas government in Gaza might just be a matter of time,” he said.

Israeli officials sought to play down Hamas’s gains, saying any benefits would be offset by putting the onus on Hamas to impose truce terms on smaller factions — a responsibility that could prove politically damaging to an organization that has built its grassroots base on fighting the Jewish state.

Under the terms of the truce, Hamas is supposed to keep militants from launching cross-border attacks at Israel, something Abbas was unable to do between Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas’s takeover there in June 2007.

“It is a test for Hamas and that was why Israel made it a deal in stages,” said Palestinian analyst Hani Habib. “The Israelis wanted to see how would Hamas be able to control other factions.”

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the group was determined to keep the ceasefire with Israel, but he said it would not use force to compel other factions to abide by the deal.

PRAGMATISM

Hamas also did not get all it wanted. Israel’s increase in supplies will be only gradual, freer movement of people across the Gaza-Egypt border has yet to be agreed and Israel has not agreed to hold off military operations in the West Bank.

Emad Gad, a specialist on Israel at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Hamas’s decision to accept the truce, even though it does not restrict Israeli activities in the occupied West Bank, “shows that Hamas has become more realistic politically and more pragmatic”.

Western diplomats say accepting the truce reflects a realization in the United States and Israel that a year of tightening economic sanctions created daily hardships but did not turn the masses against their Hamas masters.

Western officials say privately they believe the embargo has failed in large part because Hamas has proved effective at using it as a rallying cry — both domestically and internationally — to skirt blame for deteriorating economic conditions.

And despite saber-rattling about preparations for a major offensive if the truce collapses, Israeli leaders are divided about the merits of a large-scale operation that could result in heavy casualties on both sides and ultimately prove indecisive in ending cross-border rocket attacks by militants.

Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels and Jonathan Wright in Cairo; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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