- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel has dropped its campaign to ban the Hamas movement from Palestinian parliamentary elections, a senior official said yesterday, acknowledging defeat after President Bush pointedly skipped repeating the demand in a public appearance with the Palestinian leader last week.

In another election-related development, the Palestinian prime minister said a program is under way to disarm a militant group and bring its gunmen into the security services — a possible model for dealing with Hamas as it turns political after nearly two decades of attacking Israelis.

Israel never made specific threats against Hamas candidates in the January elections, but hinted that it would refuse to remove roadblocks and ease other travel restrictions vital to carrying out a free election campaign.

Israel says it is still opposed to Hamas’ participation because its charter calls for destruction of the Jewish state, but will take no steps to stop it.

“Are we going to go to war on this issue or interfere on this issue? No,” the senior official said.

Israel also said there would be no hope for peace talks if Hamas took part in the Palestinian government. That threat still hangs in the air.

“This organization will not be a legitimate partner for peace,” another official said. “It’s Hamas or us.”

During the past five years, Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with Mr. Bush on Thursday at the White House. Although he warned Mr. Abbas that violent Palestinian groups could undermine the democratic Palestinian state-in-the-making, Mr. Bush did not mention Hamas by name nor call for its exclusion from the elections — a sign that despite Israel’s strong feelings, the United States was not going to press the point.

Hamas did well in three rounds of local elections this year and is poised to make significant inroads into the power of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party when Palestinians vote in January.

This will be the first time Hamas has run candidates for parliament. The group skipped the only other such election, a decade ago, complaining that the parliament itself is part of an interim peace accord with Israel, a pact Hamas rejects on religious principle.

When Mr. Abbas was in Washington, Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Fatah, took responsibility.

Yesterday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said a project is under way to train Al Aqsa gunmen as police officers and incorporate them into security forces — a way of neutralizing them.

“We have agreed today to establish five new camps for training and hosting ‘stragglers’” from Al Aqsa who have not turned in their weapons, Mr. Qureia said. “We have a plan, and we have started implementing it.”

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