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Analysis: Hamas wants bigger regional role

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm •  Published: April 10, 2013

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has set an ambitious agenda for his new term, seeking to transform his Islamic militant movement that rules Gaza into a widely recognized political force, but without making concessions toward Israel needed for international acceptance.

Re-elected last week, Mashaal will try to deepen ties with regional powers Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, which have already given money or political support to Gaza and could be conduits to the U.S. and Europe, several leading Hamas figures said.

Mashaal will also push for a power-sharing deal with his Western-backed Palestinian rival, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mashaal "wants Hamas to be a recognized and legitimate player," said Jordan-based analyst Mouin Rabbani, who frequently meets with Palestinian politicians, including Hamas members.

"The challenge and conflict is that he has to demonstrate he can do so without going down the same path as Fatah," he said, referring to the Abbas-led party.

Fatah was once dominant in Palestinian politics but has been severely weakened by years of failed talks with Israel on terms of a Palestinian state. Hamas is Fatah's main political rival, espousing an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.

Key to Mashaal's plans is a political deal with Abbas, as a possible springboard for joining and eventually taking control of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group widely recognized as representing an estimated 12 million Palestinians world-wide. The Fatah-dominated PLO is largely inactive now, but it remains attractive to Hamas as a way of gaining international status.

A Hamas deal with Abbas would have to wait until the latest U.S. push to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations plays itself out.

Setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem through negotiations with Israel remains Abbas' goal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region this week to try to restart talks between Israel and Abbas. Chances of that in coming months appear slim because gaps remain wide between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas won't complicate Kerry's mission further by renewing talks now with Hamas on ending the Palestinian political split. The U.S. and Europe have branded Hamas a terror group for killing hundreds of Israelis in attacks in the past 25 years.

The Palestinian split broke open in 2006, after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliament elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

The international community said at the time it would only deal with a Hamas government if the Islamic militants recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous interim peace deals — conditions Mashaal rejected.

A year later, after failed power-sharing attempts, clashes erupted between Fatah and Hamas, ending in the Islamic militant takeover of Gaza.

The two sides have been running rival governments since then, Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in the 38 percent of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where more than 90 percent of the West Bank's Palestinians live. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Last year, Abbas and Mashaal, who are said to get along well, seemed close to ending the rift, but Hamas hard-liners in Gaza torpedoed their deal which would have included elections for parliament and president.

In his new term, Mashaal will seek a different arrangement with Abbas without elections, said a senior Hamas official. Hamas would get a foothold in the PLO, and Hamas would agree to serve as a partner in an Abbas-led Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas would demand to retain control over security forces in Gaza, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Hamas policy. Abbas has rejected that in the past.

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