Rising power of Hamas

Israeli officials, concerned about the rising power of the militant Islamic group Hamas, are sending mixed signals about whether Israel will go ahead with its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank. But, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists the withdrawal will take place in mid-August.

The prime minister's closest allies are busy shoring up support for the withdrawal plan among a divided populace, while others are expressing doubts about going through with it.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says the withdrawal must go ahead even if &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/hotspots/2002/07/20/32919.html ' target=_blank>Hamas were to score a significant victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections July 17.

The militant Islamic group has done very well in recent local council elections and emerged as a serious rival to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' mainstream Fatah faction, reports VOA News.

The late Yasser Arafat's long-dominant secular &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/world/2000/12/09/1398.html ' target=_blank>Fatah faction faces a very real challenge from its younger Islamist rival. Fatah came out ahead in the municipal elections, but Hamas won in the all-important major urban centres. Election officials said Fatah captured about 50 of 84 municipal councils, and Hamas 30, including Rafah in Gaza, and the West Bank town of Qalqilya.

Israel's insistence that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas confront and disarm Hamas runs counter to the Fatah leader's strategy of neutralising the militant groups by engaging them in the political process.

Israeli officials frequently voice frustration at the Palestinian Authority for failing to crack down on the militants, but the authority's leaders insist they cannot risk provoking civil war, and point to three months of relative calm as a vindication of Mr Abbas's strategy. Interior Minister Nasser Youssef argued that by taking part in the elections, Hamas was tacitly accepting the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel under which the Palestinian electoral system was created. "Hamas knows this election is based on Oslo and the road map (peace plan)," Mr Youssef said.

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