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Hamas ambiguity leaves friends and foes guessing

By Super
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Gaza, Mar 17: ''Constructive ambiguity,'' is how Hamas officials brand their new policy.

But potential allies, donors, enemies and ordinary Palestinians are yet to be convinced by Hamas's subtle changes of language and emphasis since its shock election victory set it on course to form a government.

''Hamas has presented answers to all issues but it did not actually answer anything,'' said political analyst Hani Habib.

''On the contrary, it has raised more questions.'' The confusion highlights the dilemma faced by Hamas since it won a January. 25 election and faced calls from Western donors and President Mahmoud Abbas to recognise Israel, abandon violence, accept peace accords with the Jewish state and agree to talks.

On the one hand, Hamas has been trying to give some ground to persuade Abbas's defeated Fatah movement and other factions to join its coalition and in the hope of winning diplomatic openings and money from abroad.

On the other, it does not want to abandon fundamental policies rooted in religious belief and shared by its power base that Israel should eventually be eliminated and both it and the Palestinian Authority be replaced by an Islamic state.

In new ''general principles'' for government Hamas said it would examine existing peace accords ''in accordance with the Palestinian interest'', an apparent shift from its former outright rejection, but still very open to interpretation.

The agenda given by Hamas to other parliamentary groups steered clear of its standard line that it could never recognise Israel, saying it was ''up to the Palestinian people to decide''.

While Hamas says it is no longer formally bound by a truce agreed more than a year ago and remains firmly committed to ''armed resistance'', it continues to respect the ceasefire and shows no sign of resuming attacks.

SHORT-TERM ISSUES

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the new agenda was not vague, but aimed to address short-term issues for the four-year lifespan of the government rather than strategic questions. ''It was an agenda for common ground with other parliamentary blocs,'' Abu Zuhri said.

''We do not understand realism to mean conceding principles and rights. Realism is listening to all parties without clashing with the interests of our people.'' But uncertainty over what Hamas's new agenda means starts in the Palestinian street, where Hamas won support for its charity network and corruption-free reputation as well as for its campaign of suicide bombings during an uprising.

''What do they want?'' said 25-year-old Gaza grocer Mohammad Abdallah. ''Hamas positions used to be clearer. Are they against agreements or not? Will they recognise Israel or not?'' Hamas has been unable to convince Fatah and other factions of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that it has changed enough for them to join the government it expects to announce in the next few days.

One Fatah official said Hamas had presented a ''non-programme that is vague and insufficient''.

Israel is still less convinced of any change of heart or sign that Hamas will accept the terms demanded by major powers.

''We see verbal gymnastics, we see a lot of statements that give them all too much wiggle room,'' said Mark Regev of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

''Hamas is undertaking a public relations campaign, a smiling campaign, towards Western countries because there are concerns about the possibility of both Europe and North America cutting funding.'' Western diplomats echo Israel's position that Hamas is far from doing enough to show it has changed. Any international debate is over how much time Hamas should be given to moderate its positions than whether it might already have done so.

''The world is not stupid,'' said Habib. ''By speaking with two voices, Hamas will fail to persuade the world of its willingness to change.''

REUTERS

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