HAMAS FACED its first concrete choice this week between its ambition to govern the West Bank and Gaza and its extremist commitment to terrorism -- and it chose to side with the suicide bombers. The sickening Passover attack at a Tel Aviv restaurant Monday, which killed nine Israelis and injured dozens, was carried out by Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed extremist group that refuses to observe the shaky cease-fire Hamas has followed for more than a year. Yet, though the attack violated its own policy and undermined its interests, several of Hamas's spokesmen quickly defended it. The result was to put the Palestinian government on record as an outlaw and to raise dangerously the chances of a major new outbreak of Middle East violence.
In the short term, Hamas's rhetorical posturing should painfully affect its own practical interests. Faced with an empty treasury and more than 140,000 civil servants and police officers who have not been paid this month, the Islamic movement's foreign minister has been touring capitals in search of funding. Just before the bombing Qatar announced a $50 million pledge, adding to $50 million already promised by Iran and an unspecified "emergency" grant by Russia. That still falls short of the monthly payroll -- and now both Russia and Qatar, as well as every other Arab League state, should have second thoughts. Russia is still a member of the Middle East "quartet," which has called on Hamas to disarm and recognize Israel; Qatar is a close U.S. ally that wants to be perceived as one of the region's modernizers. The Bush administration should use its leverage to stop both from paying up.
Hamas's position will also justify tough new measures by Israel, which cannot be expected to accept a neighboring government's open embrace of suicide bombers who attack its cities. The Israeli army already wages a ruthless but narrowly targeted war against Islamic Jihad and has killed a score of its members in the past several months while arresting hundreds of others. A separate campaign of artillery barrages and airstrikes is aimed at suppressing rocket launches into Israel from the Gaza Strip, which are being carried out by several Palestinian factions. Yesterday the Israeli cabinet reportedly decided to refrain from renewing military action against Hamas itself. But if more suicide bombers succeed in the coming days and weeks with Hamas's support, this restraint will surely be abandoned.
Hamas has hoped to maintain relative peace with Israel so that it can attract foreign support and deliver on its promises of good government to Palestinian voters. Western governments have calculated that by starving the Islamists of funding, they can force them to recognize Israel and give up terrorism, or cause their rejection by Palestinians. Now those strategies stand to be overtaken by the enduring Middle East cycle of terrorism and retaliation. Hamas will be the biggest loser if such a war erupts; it also has the ability to avert it, by rejecting the terrorism of Islamic Jihad and acting to prevent it. Though it has been in power for less than three weeks, Hamas's time is fast running out.