Hamas Ready to Replace Arafat as Leader of Palestinians, Official Says

Hamas, a militant group that espouses suicide attacks and a strict Islamic rule, says it is ready to take over the Palestinian leadership from Yasser Arafat.

The statements on Thursday by a senior Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, were a rare public expression of the rising political ambitions of the group as Israel itself works to weaken Arafat.

Zahar told The Associated Press that the group is "absolutely" prepared to lead the Palestinian people. He said Hamas has the infrastructure to take over leadership "politically, financially [and] socially."

Zahar said Hamas would take over through elections, not by force. Palestinians had elections scheduled for Jan. 20 but postponed them because Israeli troops are in control of most of most West Bank cities.

Israel's government is working to weaken Arafat, saying that he encourages militants to attack Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out contacts with Arafat, insisting that other Palestinian leaders are prepared to make peace. Sharon, with the backing of the United States, has demanded that Arafat be replaced or sidelined.

Critics have warned that the plan could backfire because radical groups like Hamas, not moderates, could take over if Arafat is neutralized.

Arafat has not visited Gaza in more than a year, confined to his headquarters in Ramallah by the Israeli forces. He fears that if he leaves, he will not be allowed to return.

Hamas has moved into the vacuum in Gaza, offering social services in the crowded territory, poverty-stricken in the best of times and made even more destitute by the effects of the conflict. The group's frequent attacks against Israel have bolstered its support.

In an apparent move to reassert control, the head of Preventive Security in Gaza, Arafat ally Rashid Abu Shbak, told Israel Radio on Thursday that he is sending police into areas where militants, many from Hamas, have fired mortars and rockets at Israeli settlements.

Shbak said the rocket fire is against the interest of the Palestinian people because it draws punishing Israeli retaliation.

Reflecting Hamas policy, Zahar said the armed conflict with Israel would continue, referring to suicide bombings and other attacks. Egypt has been trying to obtain a declaration from rival Palestinian factions to stop attacks on Israeli civilians, but Hamas has refused.

Hamas has been responsible for dozens of suicide bombing attacks against Israelis during 28 months of fighting. As a matter of Islamic principle, Hamas does not recognize the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, opposing Arafat's policy of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator from Arafat's Fatah movement, said Hamas leaders rarely mention their takeover goal in public, but it is clearly their intention.

"They want to mold things according to their vision," he said. "All along they presented themselves as an alternative, but they want to do it peacefully."

Hamas has avoided direct conflict with Arafat's regime up to now, though from time to time, clashes between the rival groups have erupted.

Israel sent its troops into West Bank cities and towns in mid-June after a series of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in Israel, weakening Arafat's security forces at the same time as Israel charged that Arafat was not acting to stop attacks against Israelis.