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Hamas Is Regaining Political Clout as Peace Process Flags

By Rebecca Trounson
Los Angeles Times
KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip

The Islamic resistance movement Hamas seems to be enjoying a political rebirth. The organization, which is suspected of carrying out last month's deadly market attack in Jerusalem, runs social and medical programs alongside its military operations and appears to be growing steadily stronger.

It is finding its constituency among the thousands of Palestinians fed up with the flagging effort by Israel and the Palestinians to forge a permanent peace and disillusioned by the lack of improvement in their lives.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his own position weakened by a corruption scandal and the deadlocked peace talks, has resisted demands from Israel and the United States to crack down on Hamas and other radical Islamic groups in the wake of the July 30 market attack.

"He is too wise now to move against us and all our supporters," said Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a founder of Hamas and its top political leader in the Gaza Strip. "He cannot arrest thousands and thousands of people."

Indeed, to the anger of Israeli officials and the dismay of American diplomats, Arafat appeared to be gathering the extremists closer about him this week with a two-day "national unity" conference in Gaza and the West Bank.

In Wednesday's session in Gaza City, Rantissi and other militants listened approvingly from the dais as Arafat spoke the language of confrontation. Palestinians, he said, are prepared to return to the days of violent uprising that ended with the first Israeli-Palestinian accord nearly four years ago.

"All options are open to us," the Palestinian leader said to rousing applause. He repeated his vow to defy Israel's latest calls for sweeping arrests of Islamic militants and then publicly embraced Rantissi and other radical leaders.

At the same time, in seemingly contradictory actions, Arafat has voiced his commitment to the peace process and is allowing Palestinian security officials to continue meeting with their Israeli counterparts.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said Thursday that the United States regrets Arafat's remarks but continues to regard him as a partner in the elusive search for peace.

Palestinian analysts suggested that Arafat may have arranged the Gaza Conference to co-opt his opposition at an opportune moment. Others said he simply needed a show of support right now.

Increasingly, Palestinians are saying they see little reason to continue with a process that has yielded virtually no new territory in the past year.

The economic benefits of peace, including investment by the international community, never arrived. Thousands of workers are frequently idled, as they are now, by Israeli closures that keep them from reaching their jobs in Israel.