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Hamas confronts challenge of governing

RAMALLAH, West Bank—After exceeding their most optimistic expectations by seizing control of the Palestinian government, Hamas leaders headed to Friday prayers facing a future that even they sought to avoid.

Overnight, the Islamist militants who've fought a brutal war against Israel are having to think about how to keep the lights on, root out government corruption and, more than anything, lead Palestinians in creating their long-denied independent state.

It wasn't what Hamas leaders sought. When it decided to run in legislative elections for the first time, Hamas hoped to be an influential opposition party that could press hard-line views without bearing the full burden of running daily affairs.

"Hamas is at an historical juncture," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the independent International Crisis Group, speaking from Amman, Jordan. "The problem for Hamas is that it's now in a position where, even if it doesn't want to, it has to govern."

Like militant movements before it, Hamas may have to jettison revolutionary ideals as it grapples with the mundane problems of running a government.

Hamas says it's ready, despite widespread concerns that it's not up to the challenge. The group has managed well-respected charities and social programs, and in the past year it won praise when its members took over the job of governing major cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The biggest question facing Hamas is whether it's willing to abandon its prime objective: destroying Israel and creating a Palestinian state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Until the group accepts Israel's right to exist, Hamas is likely to remain a pariah in the international community. Israel and the United States say there can be no talks with the new Palestinian government until Hamas abandons its hard-line stance. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat faced similar pressures in the late 1980s.

The United States and Israel then refused to talk to the Palestinian leadership until Arafat explicitly renounced violence in 1988 and accepted Israel's right to exist.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who helped broker the landmark 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, said Hamas could follow that precedent.

"It's not a hopeless case for a militant organization dedicated to violence to change," Carter told Knight Ridder in Jerusalem on Friday. "The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was converted to a peaceful role. Now Hamas comes along in the same pattern and, now that they are assuming authority for the well-being of the Palestinian people, I think Hamas' policies will be greatly affected by the expressed will of the people they are governing. And I believe public opinion polls have shown that the Palestinian people want peace with justice."

Already, Hamas leaders have said they're willing to renew a yearlong cease-fire with Israel, which they embraced last year soon after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas took over. That's unlikely to assuage Israel or the United States.

During the campaign, Hamas signaled that it might be willing to bend on recognizing Israel.

"It's a stupid idea to believe that somebody can destroy Israel now," said Nashat Aqtash, a public relations expert and professor hired by Hamas to improve its image in the West. "The moment Israel complies and accepts for us to live in a state beside Israel, I assure you we, the independent Palestinians, will fight anybody who threatens that agreement."

While snubbing Israel wasn't a problem when the militant group was using suicide bombings as its main strategy, it will create a major dilemma for Hamas as the ruling party.

The Palestinian Authority relies heavily on international money to shore up its nearly bankrupt economy. The PA receives about $360 million in direct international aid, accounting for about a fifth of its $1.6 billion budget. About $70 million of that comes from the United States, but billions more from around the world flows into the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the World Bank and various aid groups.

The European community and the United States have made it clear that they'll cut off direct funding to a Hamas-run Palestinian government if the group doesn't renounce violence and accept Israel.

The United States also spent $225 million on the Palestinians via the U.S. Agency for International Development last year. This year it plans to spend $150 million, but such funds are channeled through nongovernmental organizations and most presumably wouldn't be affected by an aid ban.

Hamas leaders downplayed the impact any cuts would have and suggested that they could replace any lost Western aid with money from Arab nations.

But Diana Buttu, a former Abbas aide, said that Hamas may be fooling itself if it thinks it can replace Western aid because Arab nations have delivered only about 10 percent of their pledged support over the years.

The Palestinian economy is also highly dependent on the goodwill of Israel, which collects the bulk of its neighbor's taxes and passes them to the Palestinian Authority. Israel has previously applied pressure to Arafat's government by cutting off the tax flow.

Already, some Israeli lawmakers are calling on their government to choke off the money again—a step Palestinian leaders warned could create more instability by throwing thousands of disgruntled security forces out of their jobs.

Because of these challenges, Hamas is trying to form a coalition with the long-ruling Fatah party. But so far, Fatah appears content to let Hamas confront the problems alone.

Another major issue will be what to do with Hamas militants. The long-stalled U.S.-backed road map, which was designed to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, calls on Palestinian leaders to disarm militant groups in the early stages.

Abbas had indicated that he would begin taking guns from militants after the election.

But should Hamas gain control of the security forces, along with the Palestinian intelligence operation, it's unclear whether it will disarm militants, which include its own members

Indeed, control of the Fatah-heavy security forces itself could become a political issue. The various forces report directly to the interior minister, but ultimately answer to the president. Hamas could seek to install one of its members as interior minister, but Fatah members in the security forces have said they may resist that move.

Even then, it's unclear what a Hamas-led government would do. There are concerns that the 56,000-strong security forces are bloated with police and soldiers who do little more than collect paychecks. But kicking them out or replacing them with Hamas soldiers could generate problems by creating a class of disgruntled former soldiers.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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