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Hamas to Take Part In Palestinian Races

Radicals Undecided on Role in Cabinet

By Ali Daraghmeh
Associated Press
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page A20

NABLUS, West Bank, March 12 -- The Islamic Resistance Movement, the group known as Hamas that is sworn to the destruction of Israel, announced Saturday it would take part in a Palestinian parliamentary election. The move could undermine Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to make peace.

Hamas has been the major force behind a four-year suicide bombing campaign. A victory by the group in the July 17 vote -- days before Israel is to begin withdrawing from the Gaza Strip -- could influence whether the Israeli pullout spawns more talks or stalemate.

Hamas leader Mohammed Ghazal said the group had yet to decide whether to support peace efforts. (Abed Omar Qusini -- Reuters)

Mohammed Ghazal, a top Hamas political leader, said the group would decide after the vote whether to join Abbas's cabinet and whether to support his moves to renew peace talks with Israel. "Until then, anything can happen," Ghazal told reporters. "We still haven't decided whether to be a part of the Palestinian government and we haven't decided on the issue of Israel . . . we will decide in the future whether to talk to them."

In Gaza, about 2,500 unemployed Palestinians stormed the parliament building, throwing stones at police and breaking windows. One man waved a piece of bread and a woman held up an empty pot to underscore complaints of poverty, while police in full riot gear fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

Hamas did not take part in the last parliamentary election in 1996, and refused to recognize the 1993 Oslo peace accords that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. But the group has emerged as a key player in Palestinian politics, scoring an overwhelming victory in municipal elections in Gaza in January and gains in local balloting in the West Bank.

Hamas has won popular support partly because of its fight against Israel, but also because it has provided welfare and social services to poverty-stricken Palestinians, especially during the last four years of fighting, when the situation has worsened.

Abbas said he was not surprised by Hamas's decision and encouraged other Palestinian factions to compete in the election. "I think this is a good step that we should react to positively," he told reporters. Abbas is under intense Israeli and U.S. pressure to rein in Hamas and other radical groups, and is trying to consolidate his power after the death of Yasser Arafat in November. He is trying to co-opt the groups, fearing that a crackdown would lead to internal fighting.

Israel and the Palestinians have been observing an informal truce declared by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Feb. 8. But sporadic violence has persisted, including a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis.

A formal cease-fire would allow Abbas to renew peace talks with the Israelis, reform his corruption-ridden government and attract donor money needed to begin rebuilding institutions that could better the lives of Palestinians.

Some Palestinians who voted for Abbas in a January presidential election are rapidly losing patience with him. Abed Abumahadi, one of the organizers of the demonstration at the parliament, demanded that Abbas create jobs and provide Palestinians with welfare services and a free education.

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