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As hope dwindles, Hamas thrives

With little faith in the peace process, Palestinian support for Hamas swells - as does resistance to a crackdown.

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There are whispers of civil war. But Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that is the main Palestinian opposition force, appears confident that it can endure whatever the Palestinian Authority is willing to mete out.

In one of his last interviews before being placed under house arrest last week, Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin stressed that the PA and Hamas "are in the same trench," against Israel. But the sheikh also called for more of the suicide bombings that have embarrassed the PA and subjected it to the most intensive Israeli and international pressure since the start of the latest Palestinian-Israeli confrontation more than a year ago.

Talk of civil war is not new. Hamas's relations with the Palestinian Authority, and before that the PLO, have veered close to all-out confrontation several times, including in 1994 and 1996. But the difference between now and then is that there is no "political horizon" or diplomatic process that provides hope to the average Palestinian, Israeli and Palestinian analysts say. Which side enjoys the upper hand has always been determined by whether the peace process offers any hope for betterment under the PA, analysts say.

"Hamas thrives on violence and confrontation, and is reduced in size tremendously when there is a successful peace process," says Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster and political scientist. "Today, only 11 percent of Palestinians believe there is a peace process. Support for a crackdown is almost nonexistent."

Under Israeli pressure, the PA has arrested dozens of Hamas leaders and activists, but Israel has dismissed the campaign as insufficient. Five Palestinians, four of them members of the security forces, were killed during Israeli army actions in the West Bank, and several Israelis were wounded yesterday in a suicide bombing in Haifa that was claimed as revenge for Israel's assassination last month of Hamas armed-wing leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud.

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