Moderating Its Militancy? Hamas Learns Politics Has Its Practical Side

Article excerpt

Byline: Willis Witter, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

QALQILYA, West Bank - Wajih el-Nazzan wears two hats - mayor of this midsize Palestinian city and activist with the militant Islamist group Hamas.

What's more, he has been in an Israeli prison for more than two years, a so-called "administrative detainee" being held without trial or formal charges.

Mr. el-Nazzan ran his political campaign by cell phone from prison, and in elections last month, he and six other Hamas activists defeated all seven incumbents from the ruling Palestinian Authority.

Until now, longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had appointed everyone at the local level. But since Mr. Arafat's death last year, the Palestinians have transformed some 200 city councils in the West Bank and Gaza Strip into elective posts.

Hamas is best known for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks during more than four years of fighting.

But in February, Hamas called a truce, and by agreeing to run its own candidates for political office, it has suddenly created something that looks a lot like a two-party system: Hamas vs. Mr. Arafat's Fatah party, which is virtually synonymous with the ruling Palestinian Authority.

"The Islamic world is fertile ground for terrorism because of the lack of real democracy," Mr. el-Nazzan said in a telephone interview from his prison cell late last month - coincidentally his first day on the job.

The irony of echoing President Bush, who began his second term with a call for democracy in the Arab world as an antidote for terrorism, is not lost on Mr. el-Nazzan.

"The first democratic process took place during the time of the prophet Muhammad. We go back a long time before Bush," Mr. el-Nazzan said.

"Concerning President Bush's vision of democracy in the Middle East: Number 1, there should be no pressure [from the United States] on the people of the Middle East on whom to elect," Mr. el-Nazzan said.

"If and when democracy comes to the Islamic world, it is the task of the Americans to treat people like us - even if we are Islamists - with respect."

Hamas unseated Fatah in dozens of city councils across the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the first two rounds of municipal elections, which began late last year. In bigger cities, its victories over incumbent Arafat appointees have been of landslide proportions.

Hamas' success, in turn, creates a problem for the Bush administration - what to do about terrorist groups such as Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, now that both are winning elections and taking office?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this year that democracy has the power to moderate the militants. But she stopped short of saying that U.S. officials are ready to start talking to either group.

Statements from other Bush administration officials, emphasizing that both Hamas and Hezbollah are designated terrorist groups and, therefore, off-limits to formal contact by American diplomats, reflect a degree of uncertainty on how to proceed.

Nevertheless, Hamas' participation in local elections has turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a testing ground for Mr. Bush's democracy drive - a topic that is certain to arise during Miss Rice's visit to the Middle East this week.

A new era

Since Mr. Bush devoted his second inaugural address to "the cause of human freedom," which he called the "one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment," tepid reforms have come to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, mass protests led to the first elections in a generation without the presence of occupying Syrian troops. In Iraq, the evolving U.S. exit strategy depends on the ability of the nation's first freely elected government to defeat a deadly insurgency with force, persuasion or a combination of both.

But in the future state of Palestine, democratization is advancing at a rate that few thought possible. …