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Hamas on rise amid setbacks of Mideast peace process
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22:10, April 21, 2008

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When the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) erupted in 2000, no one could foretell that the conflict would eventually mutate into a three-way standoff, with the Islamic Resistance Movement ( Hamas) rising to confront both the Palestinian National Authority and Israel.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has weakened peace camps on both sides, giving rise to Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and has gained ground quickly in the political and international arenas.

In January 2006, Hamas defeated moderate President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement in the legislative elections in the Palestinian territories and formed the first ever national unity government.

In December 2006, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haneya paid a five-day visit to Iran, where he received an offer of 250 million U.S. dollars in aid to his government.

In February 2007, exiled Hamas politburo leader Khaled Mashaal traveled to Russia in a visit that reflected the Kremlin's position that negotiations, rather than sanctions, are the best way to deal with Hamas.

In June 2007, Hamas routed security forces loyal to Abbas and took control of the Gaza Strip, making the geographically-split Palestinian territories also politically divided -- with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian President Abbas sacked the Hamas-led government after the takeover.

Hamas, which is shunned by the West for its refusal to renounce armed struggle with Israel, also expects to have a political presence in the European countries.

In October 2007, Ahmed Yousef, an advisor to sacked Palestinian Prime Minister Haneya, said, "There are European bids to create a political presence for Hamas in the European countries based on formal and semi-formal meetings with European states."

Even U.S. politicians seem not to hum the same tune over Hamas, although the U.S. government has long listed Hamas as a terrorist group.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter Friday met with exiled Hamasleader Mashaal in Damascus, Syria, during his weeklong Middle Easttour, saying Middle East peace can only be achieved by talking to all sides.

Among Arab countries, Hamas is seen as a reality.

Late last month, an advisor to President Abbas said the Syrian-hosted Arab summit approved the Yemeni initiative for reconciliation between the rival Hamas and Fatah movements.

Israel, which has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip while escalating tit-for-tat attacks with Hamas since last June, is also trying to negotiate a truce with its arch foe, but through a third party.

Egypt, with the backing of the United States, has been mediating between Israel and Hamas on reaching a ceasefire agreement, by which Israel stops its offensives and militant groups halt armed attacks on Israel, reports said.

While Hamas is on the rise in Middle East politics, peace talks between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel have made little headway after the U.S.-hosted Annapolis conference last November.

Washington has been exerting pressure on the Israelis and the Palestinians to speed up negotiations to reach an agreement by the end of 2008, a goal set at the Annapolis conference.

However, the renewed peace talks have been marred by violence in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where Israel launches air and ground raids in a bid to curb rocket fire from the territory.

Abbas, for a period of time, suspended talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in protest at the Israeli operations, while Olmert warned that the Jewish state cannot carry out any agreement as long as the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas.

Olmert, who also faces pressure at home not to make too many concessions to the Palestinians, expects to be able to conclude only a broad "declaration of principles" with Abbas -- not the full settlement of the conflict that the Palestinians want, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon said in February.

Analysts say if the peace talks do not bear fruit, the escalating violence in the Gaza Strip will almost certainly deal the peace camp another blow, intensifying the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians.


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