What about Hamas?

November 15, 2007

The Islamic militant group Hamas brutally put down a rally by thousands of Gazans who turned out this week to mark the third anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The demonstration was a tribute to Mr. Arafat, but more important, it was also a show of support for his Fatah faction and a strong sign of Gazans' growing antipathy toward Hamas. In Gaza, though, Hamas gunmen rule, and they may well become the uninvited spoilers of the peace summit planned for Annapolis.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meeting in preparation for the U.S.-sponsored conference have been focused on a variety of issues, but they shouldn't ignore the events in Gaza and Hamas' continued reign of terror there. More than a million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, where conditions have seriously deteriorated since Hamas overran the territory in June when the Hamas-Fatah governing coalition fell apart.

Hamas' hard-line ideological stance against Israel has made it impossible for its elected representatives to govern as the international community has refused to deal with it. The Hamas leadership's decision not to acknowledge this failing has eroded its political power and standing among many Gazans who struggle for food, jobs and a way to provide for their families.

In a recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, support for Hamas fell behind that for Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction. Forty percent of those polled favored Fatah, compared with 20 percent for Hamas, a shift that reflects Hamas' waning influence since its parliamentary election win in 2006.

But despite their disenchantment, Palestinians in Gaza can't be expected to unilaterally overthrow the Hamas leadership, which is backed by a well-armed militia. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' government in exile in the West Bank won't be able to reach agreements with Israel without addressing the plight of Gazans.

Deciding what to do about Hamas is a problem not easily solved. It's unlikely that Hamas would willingly give up control of Gaza, but some accommodation with its leaders will have to be made for the dream of an independent Palestine to be realized by all Palestinians, and not just those living in the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas may have to broker a deal with moderates of Hamas and disarm the others. It's not an enviable outcome or necessarily politically viable, but Palestinians must be united under one government to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.

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