Taking On Hamas Would Be Hard for Palestinian PM

Graffiti on the walls in Jabaliya depicts masked Hamas (search) members firing rockets into Israel, and people in this refugee camp talk about the Islamic militant group with pride.

Israel is demanding Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) use force to stop the militants, but a faceoff with the popular and well-organized Hamas would be a tough battle for the new premier's hobbled security forces, analysts say.

Abbas has sworn he will not raise weapons against fellow Palestinians. Instead, he has turned to Egyptian mediators for help negotiating an agreement with militants to halt attacks on Israelis as part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which promises a Palestinian state by 2005.

"We will not resort to a crackdown under any circumstances," Palestinian Cabinet minister Ziad Abu Amr said Monday. "It will be counterproductive."

Some people say that trying to suppress Hamas would plunge Palestinians into civil war and that Abbas has neither the power nor the popularity to win such a battle.

"If he was going to use force tomorrow, I don't think he has a chance," said Ali Jerbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank (search)'s Bir Zeit University.

Abbas' security forces are fragmented into competing groups and have been badly damaged by Israel in more than 32 months of violence, Jerbawi said, and it's unclear whether they would commit to such an operation in the first place.

Founded in 1987, Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in the recent violence with suicide bombings, remote-controlled bombs and rifle attacks in pursuit of its goal of a Muslim Middle East and the destruction of Israel.

It bolsters its popularity through a network of social and charitable organizations that distributes rice, cooking oil, sugar and salt to the poor.

"I would join hands with even the devil just to get some food," said one Jabaliya resident, Abdel Majid.

Few Palestinians voice support for Abbas, who took office April 30 and has a popularity rating in the single digits in most polls.

In Jabaliya, a refugee camp radicalized by poverty and hopelessness, many view Abbas as a stooge of Israel and the United States and consider the Palestinian Authority as corrupt thieves who run from Israeli raids.

Hamas members, on the other hand, are admired for standing up to Israeli soldiers, often fighting from behind huge mounds of dirt and rubble dumped at key points in the camp.

"Hamas is fighting for our rights," said Ahmed Henawi, 60. "If [Abbas] wants to fight Hamas, he will be fighting the whole nation."

Israeli raids on Jabaliya are often reprisals, because Hamas uses the camp as cover for launching homemade rockets at the Israel. But people here say they don't blame Hamas for Israel's retaliation.

Henawi sits outside an appliance repair shop smoking cigarettes and drinking tea with friends. None have jobs and nearly all live in overcrowded homes. Henawi lives with 11 people in a three-room house. Moen Awayda, 36, lives with 17 in four rooms.

"We are living like dogs," said Awayda, who is a member of Abbas' Fatah movement but says he would stand with Hamas if the prime minister tried to crack down.

After President Bush launched the road map at a June 4 summit in Jordan, violence intensified between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas took part in a raid that killed four Israeli soldiers and sent a suicide bomber to blow up a Jerusalem bus, an attack that killed 17 people.

Israel responded with helicopter raids into Gaza, targeting Hamas officials, including a failed strike at Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader.

Though Israel argues such attacks weaken Hamas and will eventually destroy it, many analysts disagree.

The attacks, which often kill bystanders in Gaza streets, increase Palestinian anger with Israel and create a spike in Hamas' popularity, Jerbawi said.

"If you could dismantle [Hamas] by assassinating two or three people then I think Israel would have done this a long time ago," he said.

Nachman Tal, at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said it would be impossible to uproot Islamic militant groups like Hamas unless the Israeli government was willing to kill thousands of people, as Syria did in the 1970s and Iraq in the '80s in their battles with Muslim extremists.

Abbas "is not able to give the goods that Israel wants," Tal said.

The support for Hamas among Palestinians has driven many Israelis to despair.

Columnist Ben-Dror Yemini said the Palestinians' determination belies the long-held Israeli notion that Arabs "understand only force."

"I wish they did understand force," he wrote in the Maariv daily. "Here they are, beaten and humiliated and wounded, and it only drives them on. The list of volunteers for the 'martyrs' brigades' only gets longer, even though each such lunatic knows he will cause his family harm and their house will be destroyed. They don't care. They don't understand force."