For Hamas, Vengeance Trumps Talks

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Palestinians mourn at the funeral for the victims of an Israeli attack

Even before he was killed by an Israeli missile things had not been going well for Hamas military commander Salah Shehade. His movement's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had begun publicly discussing a halt to attacks on Israelis in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank towns, an end to assassinations and the release of prisoners. The idea of halting "martyrdom" operations was anathema to Shehade and other hard-liners in Gaza and the West Bank, and they were faced with making the case that their aims could only be achieved through violence. But any emerging debate on the question has been stifled by Tuesday's air strike that killed Shehade and 14 others. Until the Palestinian street has satisfied its demand for revenge, further talk of ending attacks on Israelis, by Hamas or any other Palestinian faction, is unlikely.

The need to curb terror

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Combined pressure from the West and the Arab world has made clear to the Palestinian Authority that the key to its survival now lies in reestablishing its ability to curb terror attacks. That's pushed the PA into new talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad — a conversation in which all sides are aware that the alternative will be a potentially disastrous confrontation between Arafat's Authority and the radical Islamists. The fact that the Saudis have joined in pushing publicly for such a truce increases the political pressure on Hamas, which wants to avoid appearing at odds with the Arab world. Besides its clandestine terror wing, Hamas maintains a huge health-, education- and welfare infrastructure on the West Bank and Gaza, often providing basic services where the PA fails to deliver. And that civil infrastructure, which has been the foundation of Hamas's political popularity, is maintained in large part through funding from charities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The Hamas leadership is concerned about the deteriorating condition of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza. Poverty rates that have spiraled past 50 percent and the social and economic trauma of living under siege and curfew are taking a heavy toll on increasingly desperate ordinary Palestinians. Hamas wants to avoid anything that would cause the group to be seen as prolonging that agony, or provoke a conflict with the PA.

The Israeli reaction

In Israel, the triumphalism that followed the air strike — Prime Minister Sharon called it one of Israel's "greatest successes" — quickly turned into a chorus of self-flagellation Wednesday in the face of fierce international criticism over the civilian casualties. Israel's President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a number of military officials described the decision to drop a one-ton bomb in densely populated Gaza as a mistake. The IDF and the Shin Bet security service even launched an inquiry into the "intelligence failure" that resulted in such high civilian casualties.

Israel's beleaguered peace camp went even further, questioning the timing of the strike in light of the comparative calm of recent weeks and renewed diplomatic activity. The dovish Haaretz newspaper pointed to previous instances, such as the assassination earlier this year of Fatah Tanzim commander Raed Karni, which prompted a wave of Palestinian terror attacks in retaliation and ended a period of relative quiet. But it dismissed the charge that this was the result of a deliberate attempt to sabotage peace efforts.

Still, the shock waves of the Gaza strike are likely to include renewed pressure on the Labor Party to quit Sharon's unity government. Although the leader of the Labor Party, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was involved in the decision to attack Shehade, his membership is growing restless. Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, daughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, quit her post as deputy defense minister Tuesday, saying she could not remain in a government that had abandoned her father's pursuit of peace.

In Gaza, the political calculations are different. Once again, those advocating political solutions are likely to find themselves eclipsed by the bombers. Their erstwhile leader Salah Shehade may lie dead and cold in the ground, but for now he's won the Palestinian political debate.