Hamas' leadership cred grows among moderates

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JERUSALEM -- The U.N. recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state should have been one of the Palestinian Authority government's greatest achievements. But hours after the historic vote last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad publicly concluded: "Hamas delivered. ... Hamas has won."

Speaking at a movie screening of a documentary focused on his efforts to build a civil society, Mr. Fayyad acknowledged that his Fatah Party's commitment to nonviolence had achieved little.

"The Palestinian Authority stands for a nonviolent path to freedom. We have not been able to deliver; it was Hamas that was able to deliver," he said. "We need to be honest with ourselves."

The startling words from one of Fatah's most prominent leaders highlighted what many Palestinian officials have been whispering for years: Hamas' star is on the rise.

Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister in the Gaza Strip, said Palestinians already were convinced that Hamas' policy of armed struggle was more effective than the policies promoted by the Western-backed Fatah movement.

"The most important fact that has emerged from this is Hamas' ability to convince all Palestinians of our way," Mr. Zahar said. "We gave Fatah a full opportunity to implement its way, and it failed."

Hamas was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement. At the time, Palestinians were engaged in a months-long uprising against Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The most prominent Palestinian group was Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and its Fatah political wing.

In the next few years, the PLO would negotiate an accord with the Israelis that allowed Arafat to settle in the West Bank, at the head of the Palestinian Authority, with expectations that a permanent peace agreement soon would be worked out. That never happened, however, and Arafat, isolated in his compound in Ramallah, died in 2004 from a mysterious illness that's never been diagnosed.

In the meantime, Hamas, which refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, rose in prominence, winning a majority of seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. A power-sharing agreement with Fatah lasted briefly, but Hamas forces wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah loyalists in 2007. It has ruled the coastal territory ever since.

"Hamas created its own state in Gaza, and as a result, its status rose not only among Palestinians but across the Arab world," a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said in a news briefing earlier this year.

In the West Bank, where Hamas still hides many of its activities and faces constant crackdowns by Israeli and Palestinian security officials, many think that Hamas could easily secure a wide majority in future elections.

"What does Fatah accomplish? Nothing. What does Hamas accomplish? Everything the people demand," said a Hamas organizer in the West Bank city of Hebron who asked not to be quoted by name.

He listed as one such accomplishment the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Gaza militants held until Israel agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for his return. Another: the ability to fire rockets from Gaza that struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the most recent battle with Israel.

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