Hamas to Assume Control of Palestinian Authority

The militant Islamist group Hamas gains control of the Palestinian Authority this weekend, when parliament convenes for the first time since last month's elections. Steve Inskeep talks with Dennis Ross, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about the kind of leverage America has with Hamas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Israel is considering ways to clamp down on Palestinian areas. The recommendations from Israel's defense ministry come as the Islamist group Hamas prepares to assume control of the Palestinian Parliament tomorrow.

MONTAGNE: The measures aim at cutting the West Bank off from Gaza, banning Gaza workers from Israel, and halting most funding. Israel has also encouraged an international boycott since Hamas won last month's election. Israelis are demanding that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

INSKEEP: The hard line against Hamas strikes some Israelis as ironic because of some history. Israel, itself, encouraged the creation of Hamas a quarter-century ago.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN, reporting:

When Israel conquered the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the 1967 War, one of the first things Israel did was release several local Palestinians who had been imprisoned for involvement in a conservative Islamic movement called the Muslim Brotherhood. One of those released was a young cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was later to become the spiritual leader of Hamas. Thirty-five years later, Israel assassinated Yassin in an effort to destroy Hamas.

Hirsh Goodman of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies says Israel encouraged Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. HIRSH GOODMAN (Senior Research Associate, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies): And they had this "brilliant" idea of creating a religious alternative to Palestinian nationalism. Their thinking was, okay, if we can build up the religious faction within the Palestinian community, who care about charity, who care about education, who care about religion--and we could make that, and they could provide a good life for the people. By in the end, to provide a good life for the people, they will circumvent Fatah from the PLO, but I don't think it worked out that way.

GRADSTEIN: Hillel Frisch, an expert on Hamas from Hebrew University, says the movement largely steered cleared of politics until the late '80s during the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

Mr. HILLEL FRISCH (Hamas Expert, Hebrew University): The PLO kept on baiting the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists by saying your rhetoric is much more radical than ours, but your deeds are very far removed from your rhetoric. So they decided to close the gap and basically began they began with terror in the course of 1988, the first year of the Intifada.

GRADSTEIN: Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry says that in hindsight Israel made a mistake in encouraging Hamas.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman): It's possible that for tactical gain, maybe a strategic mistake was made. It's similar in many ways to American support for Muslim fundamentalists against Communism during the time of the Cold War. We were fighting a very intense war against the PLO, and at the time, some people in Israel thought that these people will become a counterbalance to the PLO.

GRADSTEIN: The U.S. backed road map to peace calls on the Palestinian authority to crack down on armed groups like Hamas. Palestinian officials contend that Israeli attacks on Palestinian security installations, like police stations, over the past five years have made such a crackdown impossible. Most Israeli analysts dismiss that argument. Again, Hirsh Goodman.

Mr. GOODMAN: The Palestinians have a 60,000 person security force. They didn't collect one illegal weapon, they didn't confront one Hamas leader, they didn't deal with the Islamic Jihad, they did nothing about the bomb makers, they did nothing to preempt suicide bombing, they did nothing to take their own security into their own hands.

GRADSTEIN: The Hamas election victory came as a shock to Israel. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev insists Israel will have no contact with any Palestinian government in which Hamas is a partner.

Mr. REGEV: Anyone looks at the Hamas charter, you see an organization that says Israel has to be wiped off the map, that praises suicide bombing of innocent civilians. The question that really has to be asked is what's the point to talk to Hamas when Hamas' political positions are that Israel has to be destroyed?

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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