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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 23:32 GMT
Testing times as Hamas goes it alone
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Khaled Meshaal
Khaled Meshaal insists Hamas will outlast Israel
The failure of the Hamas militant movement's efforts to form a broad-based, coalition government will make the party's huge challenges ahead even tougher.

All the other Palestinian factions turned down the offer of a share in power.

So if Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas gives it the go-ahead, Hamas will govern alone - and under pressure from powerful forces at home and abroad.

At the core of the party's isolation is its refusal to recognise Israel.

To do so, it says, would be to legitimise the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. And Hamas regards not just the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza as being occupied territory - but all of Israel too.

If they continue to reject the international community's benchmarks they will find the Palestinian Authority will increasingly become a pariah regime
Mark Regev, Israeli foreign ministry

It was this central issue that the Fatah party said made it impossible for it to join the new government.

Fatah dominated Palestinian politics for decades until its defeat by Hamas in January's parliamentary election. And during the failed talks on a coalition it had insisted that past agreements that its leaders had struck with Israel should be respected.

Hoping for failure

If Fatah had come into the fold, it would have shared responsibility for the government's successes and failures. And with Fatah's co-operation it might have been easier for Hamas to carry out its extensive plans for reform.

It might also have been easier to control the numerous, Fatah-linked armed groups, which always have the capacity to raise tensions - both with Israel and within Palestinian society.

Hamas will worry that with Fatah going into opposition it will do much to obstruct the new government.

Some in Fatah barely disguise their desire to see the Hamas project fail, which would open the way for their return to power.

Hamas supporters dressed as suicide bombers
Israel has been struck by Hamas suicide bombers many times

Had the new government been a broad coalition representing a range of Palestinian factions it would have presented the world with a more moderate face.

Relations might have been a little easier with the Americans and the Europeans - who regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

They have threatened to cut off vitally important flows of financial aid to any Hamas-run government unless the party moderates its attitude towards Israel.

If that happens the new Hamas ministers could find themselves trying to deal with major economic problems quite soon after taking office. They might well struggle to find the money to pay wages and keep basic services going.

Ceasefire

On the other hand, Hamas seems almost more at home in a state of crisis.

And its leaders talk confidently about any shortfall in Western aid money being made up by contributions from the Arab and Islamic world. But many Palestinians will only really believe that when they see the money in the bank.

Aerial view of Israel security barrier
Israel is poised to establish what it hopes will be permanent borders

The fact that Hamas will take power alone will make it even easier for Israel to depict the new government as what it would describe as a terrorist administration.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said of Hamas: "If they continue to reject the international community's benchmarks they will find the Palestinian Authority will increasingly become a pariah regime."

Israelis have been alarmed at the threat posed by the rise of Hamas. Its suicide bombers have struck at them many times in the past.

Hamas has largely been respecting a ceasefire, despite what it sees as frequent Israeli army provocations, for more than a year, and it is unlikely to go back on the offensive now.

But when its leader, Khaled Meshaal says "we have more stamina than Israel, and we will defeat it," it is clear that he still envisages the destruction of Israel in some final reckoning, perhaps in generations to come.

Possible benefits

It is also, though, easy to see that right now what Israeli leaders call the "absence of a partner for peace" might work to their advantage.

Israel is poised to try to establish what it hopes will be its permanent borders. This is the project of the Kadima party, which looks certain to win the coming Israeli election.

The scheme involves the consolidation of Israel's hold on large tracts of the occupied West Bank and all of East Jerusalem.

This would fly in the face of all past international efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But this very public plan has so far received no Western criticism whatsoever and its architects fully expect US approval.

Palestinians complain bitterly that almost all the West's demands for moderation are directed at them, while Israeli actions that may be extremely damaging to any prospect for peace can seem to go almost unremarked.

But if there were, eventually, to be Western objections to Israel's plans for the West Bank, the Israelis will argue that their imposition of a unilateral "solution" is reasonable.

They will say that they cannot be expected to negotiate agreements with Hamas' "pariah regime".


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