- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BIDDU, West Bank — Hamas is working to soften its image both abroad and domestically on the eve of today’s Palestinian elections, recognizing that its reputation for violence is hurting its cause, at least in the West.

At a campaign rally in this village of 8,000 in the final days before the elections, one banner featured a slogan in English that said, “We don’t sing the song of death, but recite the hymns of life.”

A professional media consultant hired by the campaign acknowledged that after years of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular are thought of abroad as bloodthirsty.

“We are just screaming and shouting, and nobody knows the story. People think we are occupying Israel,” said Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Birzeit University. “We need to address Westerners differently. We need to talk their language.”

Mr. Aqtash, who said he is not a member of Hamas, said the group is spending about $40,000 to improve its image in the foreign press.

Hamas could end up with one-third to half the seats in the Palestinian parliament, giving the militant group a powerful role both domestically and in relations with Israel. That has made it more imperative for the group to repackage itself.

The new tone also offers a test for the Bush administration’s theory that as militant organizations buy into a growing Middle East democracy movement, they will become more responsible.

“As people start getting elected and have to start worrying about constituencies, social issues and living standards — and not about whether their fire-breathing rhetoric against Israel is being heard — then things start to change,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview at The Washington Times in March.

But Israelis will not be easily convinced. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that he hoped Palestinians would not “choose again the extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to sorrowful lives.”

Nevertheless, the Hamas campaign rally in Biddu was missing the incendiary rhetoric of the recent intifada, with its threats to target Israeli buses and restaurants.

The Hamas charter calling for the destruction of Israel also has been submerged by a campaign platform that is much more vague about the issue.

A rising star in the party is the relatively moderate Sheik Mohammed Abu Tir, a candidate from East Jerusalem who has spent 25 years in Israeli jails and is instantly recognizable by his fiery red beard.

In the past week, Sheik Abu Tir has been quoted on Israeli television and in newspapers boasting that Hamas would do a better job of negotiating peace than the Palestinian Authority has done.

At the Biddu rally, he sent out mixed messages. He wagged his finger as he declared the 1993 Oslo peace accords a dead letter, done in by the “blessed intifada.” Then he hinted at the possibility of talks.

“We are the owners of a mature political process,” he said of Hamas’ diplomatic strategy for ending violence with Israel. “We want to engage politically and socially.”

Eyad Saraj, an independent candidate for parliament and a Palestinian human rights activist, said Hamas is undergoing a real change, even if it has not gone far enough to satisfy Israel. He pointed to the group’s honoring of a yearlong moratorium on attacks on Israel.

The Islamists have not dropped support for an armed uprising against Israel, but now advocate negotiating a settlement indirectly with Israel based on the ill-fated U.N. partition plan of 1947.

“They have become more sophisticated, and more mature, and more professional in their work,” Mr. Saraj said. “They are playing it cool.”

Yossi Alpher, editor of the online Israeli-Palestinian opinion forum Bitterlemons.org, said it’s too early to say what direction the organization is headed.

He noted that Hezbollah in Lebanon refused to disarm even after winning a bloc of seats in that country’s parliament. “Frankly,” he said, “I’ll be very surprised if after the election [Hamas] will become more moderate, but there is a possibility.”

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