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Hamas Ready to Reach an Accord And Suspend Armed Operations

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

Hamas, the leading Palestinian voice of unyielding war with Israel, is poised to suspend its "military operations" and field candidates for election to a new legislature created by agreement with the Jewish state, according to senior Hamas leaders and a draft agreement with Yasser Arafat.

Mere contemplation of such an accord - albeit not with Israel but with Arafat's Palestinian Authority - marks a stunning turnabout for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas has stood foursquare against the peace deal with Israel and used suicide bombings to make good on a charter describing "every inch of Palestine" as its indivisible goal and "death for the sake of God" its most coveted desire.

The shift, expressed in interviews with senior Hamas leaders here and in the text of a draft accord with Arafat, reflects the Islamic movement's profound loss of strength in the past six months.

A crackdown by Arafat and a sharp decline in street support have left Hamas with many of its local leaders dead or jailed, its newspaper closed, and its mosque preachers submitting Friday sermons to police censorship. The Palestinian public, increasingly pragmatic as the fruits of self-rule grow, gives Hamas a political market share of 11 percent in an opinion poll released last week - down from nearly 40 percent in less formal surveys two years ago and 18 percent from the same pollster, the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, in June.

Many Hamas leaders, according to Palestinians who watch them closely, now fear irrelevance more than compromise and are unwilling to opt out of the first democratic contest for power in Palestinian history. The vote could come as early as Jan. 22.

"Hamas is coming to Arafat from a position of absolute vulnerability," said psychiatrist Iyad Sarraj, a political independent who chairs a Gaza-based commission on citizens rights. "People are starting to think for the first time that this peace treaty is really serious. We are moving toward the West Bank. Hamas was living on the despair of the people, and I think they understand that they are on the fringe."

Thursday will see the first issue in months of Al Watan, the previously banned Hamas weekly.