- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The leadership of Hamas, the paramilitary organization that was unexpectedly swept to power in the Palestinian elections last week, appears to have modulated its rhetoric. But is it ready to rule?

The Islamic resistance group will have to put together a new government even as it faces a possible cascade of crises:

• Can Hamas unite and control the deliberately fragmented security forces created by the now-deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat?

• How will it fund the nearly $1.6 billion annual budget without assistance from the already disenchanted World Bank and wary Western donors?

• What kind of foreign policy can the new government adopt if Western governments refuse to meet with its officials?

• And, perhaps most importantly, what kind of government can Hamas form when its own political bench is shallow and experienced senior Fatah members have pledged to form an opposition?

Senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said yesterday in Damascus that foreign governments must respect the will of the Palestinian people, who elected Hamas members to 76 of 132 seats in parliament. He also pledged yesterday not to allow foreign governments to “blackmail” Hamas into recognizing Israel.

The new government is inheriting a debt of some $700 million, and must quickly secure some $135 million within the next few weeks. Israel has said it is undecided whether to transfer some $50 million in tax receipts to the new government.

The United States and the European Union, which consider Hamas a terrorist organization, say that unless Hamas renounces violence and its calls for the destruction of Israel, they may suspend aid amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Without that money, some 135,000 Palestinian civil servants may not get paychecks, escalating the social and financial crisis.

“There is a long way between making war and making peace,” said a young man working in a shop in East Jerusalem in explaining his vote for Fatah. “What does Hamas know about running our country? It only has experience oppressing Israel.”

Mr. Mashaal, speaking to reporters from his Syrian exile, promised to combine and rule the various armed factions operating throughout the Palestinian territories. He spoke as thousands of Fatah-sponsored soldiers and militia members stormed Palestinian Authority offices in the West Bank and Gaza, demanding to keep their jobs while venting anger at their ousted leaders.

Throughout Gaza last week, people spoke of a fear of militias, many of which have created a new insecurity with kidnappings and shootouts.

“The first thing is, they need to gain control of the security forces; that is a priority,” said Ziad Abu Amr, who was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as an independent with an endorsement from Hamas.

He also suggested that Hamas undertake a number of confidence-building measures, such as inviting Fatah, independent candidates and technocrats to take senior positions in the government.

“Power-sharing will be the most meaningful alternative to Fatah,” said Mr. Abu Amr, speaking to a small group of reporters at his Gaza office last week. “Pragmatic and realistic [officials] could join the government, but not [join] Hamas.”

Hamas is not the first Islamic military organization to gain political power: Islamic parties have gained a sturdy foothold in the Arab world, playing key roles in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, but Hamas is the only militant group to attain significant power on the first try.

Hezbollah, its Lebanese counterpart, has fewer than two dozen seats in parliament, after more than a decade of political activity. Both groups have been labeled terrorist organizations by the West, and both are funded and supported by Syria and Iran.

The Palestinian territories were represented — or, at least, ruled — by Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party for more than 40 years. Hamas’ landslide victory showed an outright rejection of Fatah.

Mr. Abu Amr, who is expected to take a Cabinet position in the new government, strongly suggested that foreign governments and the press take a pause and allow Palestinians to digest the historic shift in their political scene.

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