Hamas sends signals of moderation to West

Hamas, the Islamic militant group known for suicide bombings, rocket attacks and hatred of Israel, is sending subtle signals of moderation as it prepares to join a Palestinian unity government.

Hamas officials speak of reconciliation with the West and a halt in armed hostilities with Israel, and even hint at some sort of political accommodation with the Jewish state. While Israel is not convinced, there are hopes in some Palestinian circles that the Iran-backed group could become a more accepted part of the Mideast diplomatic equation.

"The world should realize that we have made many changes," said Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. "The international community should not run away from these changes."

For that, finessing will be required: Even a gentler Hamas will not openly accept Israel — as world mediators have demanded — or dismantle its sizable arsenal. Israelis, traumatized by suicide bombers turning their cafes and buses into bloody killing grounds, could hardly be more skeptical.

But the world community has mostly ignored Israel's calls to isolate the new government, suggesting a willingness to let Hamas prove it has changed.

Both Hamas officials and outside analysts say the group has learned some bitter lessons during its four years in power in Gaza. The impression is that Israel's blockade, which caused widespread hardship in the crowded territory, a blistering Israeli military offensive two years ago and the uprisings throughout the Arab world have all factored into its thinking.

Hani Masri, a Palestinian commentator who sometimes mediates between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah, said Hamas realized that to lead the Palestinians, it needs "acceptance by the international community, particularly the West."

Hamas was founded in Gaza in 1987 by a group of intellectuals and religious leaders with the goal of establishing an Islamic state in what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It initially focused on building up schools and charities, and Israel even maintained ties with the group to counter the then-dominant Fatah.

Hamas quickly turned to violence after a Palestinian uprising erupted in late 1987. Since then, Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.

It also struck up an alliance with Israel's staunchest enemies, Syria and Iran, receiving military training and weapons.

Hamas is now believed to possess thousands of rockets capable of striking deep inside Israel from the Gaza Strip, as well as sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Just last month, an Israeli teen was killed by a Hamas anti-tank rocket that struck a school bus in southern Israel.

Even so, behind the scenes, Hamas appears to be in the midst of a transformation, spurred by Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas victory in legislative elections a few months later. Hamas and Fatah initially set up a unity government, but it soon fell apart.

In 2007, Hamas expelled Fatah forces and seized control of Gaza. It has governed the impoverished coastal strip with a strong hand, while Fatah was left in control of just the West Bank, an inland territory divided from Gaza by southern Israel.

The division was widely regretted by Palestinians, and it hampered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' campaign to get the world to recognize a Palestinian state under his leadership. Last week, the sides signed an agreement to form a caretaker unity government until elections next year.

Hamas has sent a series of signals recently aimed at showing that it will not be the reason for any new breakdown. While refusing to disarm or give up its "right to resist," leaders — including Gaza Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a speech last week — say they are committed to preserving "calm" with Israel.

The group says it will carry out attacks on Israel only as part of a Palestinian "consensus," in effect giving President Abbas, an outspoken critic of violence, veto power over terror and rocket attacks.

And critically, its leadership, including its exiled supreme leader Khaled Mashaal, have signaled they will not stand in the way of any agreement Abbas might reach with Israel.

At a signing ceremony last week in Cairo, Mashaal referred to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and made no references to Israel's destruction.

Nonetheless, Israel is furiously lobbying the West to boycott any Palestinian government that includes Hamas. Officials believe any change is only tactical, and point to recent rocket fire as evidence.

"A leopard has sunk its teeth in our flesh, in the flesh of our children, wives, our elderly, and we will not be tempted to believe that this leopard has now changed its spots," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads to Washington in the coming week to rally support. "We will not ignore its voracious growls. We will strike it down."

For now, the U.S. and European countries are waiting to see what kind of Palestinian government is finally formed.

France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, cautioned against rejecting the new Palestinian government out of hand and described the Palestinian unity deal as "an opportunity to seize."

Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast analyst who has closely studied the evolution of Hamas and frequently talks to members of the group, said he is convinced it has changed.

The London School of Economics professor said support among the Palestinian public for an accommodation with Israel — and the revolution in Egypt, whose new leadership brokered the reconciliation — have deeply affected the group.

"They have come to the conclusion that settlement (with Israel) is the only way to go," he said.