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Mideast peace process endangered as Hamas wins parliament majority

JERUSALEM (BP)–A radical Islamic party classified by the United States as a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel won a landslide surprise victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25, casting doubt on whether the Mideast peace process will proceed.

Nearly 78 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters cast ballots during the first Palestinian parliamentary election since 1996 when Yasser Arafat and his Fatah party solidified their power.

Preliminary official results released by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission Jan. 26 indicated that Hamas won 76 seats and Fatah won 43 in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council. The remaining seats went to smaller parties and independents. Final results are expected in one or two days.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria and his cabinet resigned not long after the polls closed when it appeared Hamas would gain at least the 67 seats needed for a majority in the new parliament.

President Bush said the United States will not negotiate with Hamas toward Middle East peace unless the party renounces violence.

“I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform,” he said during a news conference at the White House Jan. 26.

Ruth Khoury, a member of Jerusalem Baptist Church who operates a pharmacy near Jerusalem’s ancient Jaffa Gate, said Hamas’ victory “makes us worry, feel heavy, unhappy” over the ascendancy of a “very extremist group.”

A makeshift red-walled Palestinian polling place was set up in the tourist area just outside Khoury’s pharmacy which draws a clientele ranging from foreigners to Orthodox Jews and Muslims.

Khoury first witnessed terrorism in 1969 when the Fatah wing of the Palestianian Liberation Organization orchestrated a bomb attack in the cafeteria of Hebrew University’s library.

“I was at the cafeteria…. I had just had a baby [who was] one month old…. And it was awful. I wasn’t injured, but I saw the people who were injured, and blood, and I was almost hysterical for two weeks after that. I couldn’t sleep, I was screaming at night, very scared,” Khoury recounted. About 25 people were injured by the bomb that had been left in the cafeteria in a scheme perpetrated by three Palestinians.

Fatah’s fighters, back then, “weren’t better” than today’s Hamas in terms of extremist violence, Khoury noted. “But once they came into power [as] the Palestinian Authority, they abandoned this line of terror,” she said. “Maybe [Hamas] … will change their agenda. It’s hard to imagine them [doing that], but that’s all we can hope for.”

As a Christian believer, Khoury said she realizes that “God has a purpose that sometimes we cannot understand … We don’t know why the Hamas is taking over these elections…. But we know God’s promises for this land and for the people of Israel, and for the believers too — that He is our protector and we trust in Him.

“So, we have peace inside because we know He is with us. That’s a relief, you know,” she said. “Being a believer, it changes everything for us. Although we are human, we can sometimes be disappointed, but we have hope.”

Fatah, a main faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization, signed on to the 1993 Oslo accords and the roadmap to peace in 2003. But Palestinians apparently had grown tired of the corruption and ineffectiveness associated with the party’s rule. After 10 years in power, Fatah had yet to achieve Palestinian statehood.

Hamas, which was formed nearly 20 years ago and is considered by Europe and Israel as well as the United States to be a terrorist group, was formerly known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since a Palestinian uprising broke out more than five years ago, according to Reuters. Former U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold, president of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, connected Hamas to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“Hamas is not just another Palestinian party,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still illegal in Egypt. In the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as the main precursor for all radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda.”

With the world watching, Hamas said it will not dismantle its military wing and will focus first on political and education reform before moving toward issues of peace and diplomacy, The Washington Post reported. The group also said it intends to work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a political partnership, though a senior Hamas official was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying negotiating with Israel is “not on our agenda.”

The election does not automatically mean Abbas must step down, although he has said he might resign if the new parliament refuses to cooperate with him in moving the Israeli peace process forward.

Some observers hope the key to softening Hamas is to let them see that the diplomatic process is a more effective means than violence to accomplish their goals.

Anis Shorrosh, author of several books on Islam who, as an evangelist, has debated Muslim scholars in the United States and various other countries, noted that Hamas means “zeal” in Arabic. “It is my hope that they will turn their destructive zeal into a constructive one in building a prosperous and stable society for the Palestinian people,” Shorrosh said.

“As one of the first Palestinian refugees from the initial conflict in 1948, I am very tired of all that has been going on,” he said in tempering his optimism.

“Tired, because peace agreements and political promises, whether by our leaders or world powers, have rarely been translated into realities,” Shorrosh explained. “Tired, because the bloody streets, buses and restaurants have caused massive revulsion among the world’s civilized societies. They look at Palestinians with disdain and repugnance because of our ‘culture of death.’

“Tragically, the most educated Palestinians have emigrated to other Arab countries as well as overseas,” Shorrosh, of Fairhope, Ala., continued. “Yet the brain drain is not so overwhelming that we do not have some potentially capable leaders to move forward. Let us hope that reform will win over traditionalism, and law and order will overcome lawlessness.

“Nevertheless,” Shorrosh reminded, “the titanic conflict will come sooner or later over who controls the biblical city of Jerusalem,” which is envisioned as a capital city by both Jews and Palestinians.

Islamic studies scholar Samuel Shahid, a native of Lebanon and professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, predicted “there will be a lot of struggle [and] many disturbances and fighting” between Hamas and Fatah.

“Hamas is a religious political movement and is very rigid especially toward other religions,” Shahid said. “Hamas is more organized within itself, and they have the power and money to help the poor. They are not as corrupt. They want especially the Muslims to see the difference between them and Fatah….

“Emotionally, the Arab world is not happy with Israel. Hamas is representing that feeling,” Shahid added. “Hamas as it stands now may attract more people to its views, and that is what it is depending on for the future.”

Fatah, meanwhile, having shifted toward negotiating a compromise with Israel, must set its sights on getting at least 50 percent of the vote whenever the next parliamentary election is called, Shahid said.

Bush, during the news conference, said the results of the election remind him about the power of democracy.

“You see, when you give people the vote, you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls — and if they’re unhappy with the status quo, they’ll let you know,” he said, adding that the peaceful democratic process and the “wakeup call” to the current leadership were positive elements in the election.

Bush said he would prefer for Abbas to stay in power, and he reiterated that the United States does not support political parties intent on destroying Israel. When asked whether he was ruling out dealing with a Palestinian government comprised, in part, of Hamas, Bush said it was too early to make a decision.

“They don’t have a government yet, so you’re asking me to speculate on what the government will look like,” he said. “I have made it very clear, however, that a political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform is a party with which we will not deal.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she had spoken with President Abbas since the election.

“We offer our congratulations to President Abbas and the Palestinian people on an election process that was peaceful and free of violence and, by all accounts, fair and where there was very heavy turnout of the Palestinian population,” Rice said in remarks to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “The Palestinian people have apparently voted for change, but we believe that their aspirations for peace and a peaceful life remain unchanged,” she said. “Those aspirations can only be met through a two-state solution, which requires a renunciation of violence and turning away from terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist and the disarmament of militias. As we have said, you cannot have one foot in politics and the other in terror. Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed.”

The United States has said it will continue to have close relations with Abbas similar to the way it deals with Lebanon, where the radical Islamic party Hezbollah has cabinet representation, The New York Times noted.

Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister of Israel, said Jan. 25 that his country would not cooperate with “a government that does not meet its most basic obligations to fight terrorism.”

“Israel can’t accept a situation in which Hamas, in its present form as a terrorist group calling for the destruction of Israel, will be part of the Palestinian Authority without disarming,” he said. Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke Jan. 4, remains in a coma.
With reporting by Bruce Mills in Jerusalem and Brent Thompson in Fort Worth, Texas.

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