Crisis for Hamas

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

FOR SEVERAL months the Palestinian Hamas movement has resisted domestic and international pressure to choose between governing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as it was elected to do in January, and continuing military and terrorist attacks against Israel. Now its own armed wing has forced a decision. Its brazen attack on military positions inside Israel on Sunday, and its capture and continued detention of a wounded Israeli serviceman, appeared to offer only two likely outcomes yesterday. Either Hamas's more moderate civilian leaders will, along with President Mahmoud Abbas, assert their authority and obtain the release of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, or they will prompt Israel to launch military operations that could topple the government. All those who favor a two-state solution in the Middle East should hope the moderates prevail.

The militants who spent months tunneling from Gaza into Israel and then launched Sunday's attack -- which killed two soldiers and seriously injured Cpl. Shalit -- predictably claimed to be retaliating for recent Israeli air and artillery strikes. But Israel was targeting terrorists who have fired hundreds of crude rockets from Gaza at Israeli towns. What really precipitated the raid was an imminent agreement between Hamas politicians and Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement. The two parties would pledge not to stage further attacks inside Israel and to aim for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas's extremist wing, based in Damascus, is desperate to sabotage the accord, which Mr. Abbas hopes will make possible a centrist Palestinian government that could attract international aid and resume peace negotiations with Israel. The raid has forced into the open Hamas's internal split. Some officials in Gaza are, like statesmen, meeting with foreign diplomats and seeking to obtain the release of Cpl. Shalit. Meanwhile, the militants issued a statement yesterday demanding -- in the style of terrorists -- the freeing of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for simple information about their hostage.

These developments offer an opportunity. If the terrorist operation is thwarted through the efforts of Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the way may be opened to a shift by the Palestinian government away from violence. The most likely alternative is a resumption of full-scale war between Israelis and Palestinians and the destruction of the Hamas administration. Yesterday Israel was wisely holding off on military action, but it can't be expected to be patient for long. Arab governments, the United States and the European Union must press hard for the right outcome: If Hamas fails to embrace politics over violence now, it probably won't get another chance.

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