RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
Sheikh Hassan Youssef had barely cleared the barbed wire of the Israeli prison before being cornered by a ring of microphones.
After two years in jail, the top Hamas leader in the West Bank emerged last week into the glare of a new era in Palestinian politics. A Jan. 9 vote is set to pick a successor to Yasser Arafat, but the Islamic militant group is calling for local and legislative elections at the same time as the presidential vote. "Hamas looks at elections as a comprehensive venture - legislative, municipal, village council, and president,'' Mr. Youssef told reporters outside the detention center in Ramallah. "It can't be dealt with partially.''
Youssef's comments, say analysts, reflect an attempt by the Islamic group to enter the Palestinian political establishment for the first time while remaining with one foot outside, as the leading opponent of negotiations with Israel.
Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Israel for his first visit in 18 months, signaling renewed US activity in the peace process. The Palestinians hope he will pressure Israel to pull its troops out of West Bank towns during the January presidential election.
Although Hamas seems to be shying away from contesting the presidency - the demand for an omnibus vote was already rejected by Palestinian Authority leaders - the Islamic militant group is poised to sponsor candidates in legislative and municipal elections expected later next year. After boycotting the 1996 general elections over its objection to the Oslo peace accords, running for parliament would be a milestone for Hamas.
After years of building popularity through sponsoring suicide bombings, an Islamic social welfare network, and criticism of government corruption, Hamas has moved from the margins as the main rival to Arafat's Fatah Party. A September poll found the combined support of 27 percent for Hamas and the much smaller Islamic Jihad faction, compared with Fatah's 25 percent.
Now, the Islamic group is poised to translate years of rising popularity into political power. "Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are always making the decisions. The only way for Hamas to be part of this process is to be in the legislative council,'' says Ghazi Hamad, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Gaza affiliated with Hamas. "Hamas will try to move closer to the national consensus. This may affect the tactics and the strategy of Hamas [pushing it] to be more pragmatic and more realistic.''
Hamad adds that Hamas's shrinking from the presidential contest is an implicit recognition that its rejection of talks with Israel is out of step with political realities. "It is very difficult for Hamas to take responsibility for the whole situation. If you're the No. 1 power, you have to pay the price for the previous commitment of the Palestinian Authority with Oslo.''
For now, the organization continues to toe a hard line, refusing agreement on a collective cease-fire among Palestinian militant groups in attacks on Israelis. Negotiations with PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have made little progress so far, though talks are expected to continue in Cairo in the coming weeks.
While standing before Arafat's grave site, Youssef repeated Hamas's demand that thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails be granted amnesty in return for a cessation of violence.
"It is impossible to have a cease fire if the issue of prisoners isn't solved,'' Youssef said. "They should all be released.''
Youssef's diminutive stature belies his standing as Hamas's most charismatic politician in the West Bank. His release at the end of a 28-month prison sentence comes at a critical time for Hamas, which lost top leaders like Abdel Azziz Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Israeli assassination strikesearlier this year.
Considered to be a Hamas moderate who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Youssef told reporters that he would run for parliament when elections are called.
The Islamic group is weaker in the West Bank compared to the religiously traditional Gaza Strip, but it could tap into voter anger over the violence and corruption among the ruling Fatah Party.
"Everybody inside Fatah feels the danger of Hamas gaining at the expense of Fatah,'' says Omar Assaf, an activist in Palestinian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an opponent of peace talks. "Hamas has consolidated its power in the last few years.''
But Hamas's political maturity has also brought confusion to the movement, say political rivals. "On the one hand, they are trying to stick to their traditional stand. On the other hand they're trying to find a new place on the political map,'' says Elias Zananiri, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry. "The leaders are moderate, and more prone to pressure from the PA and the Palestinian street.''
And yet, Mohammad Yaghi, a columnist for the Palestinian Al Ayyam newspaper, says the movement has a well- thought-out strategy. Dodging the presidential elections would avoid the possibility of an outright defeat for Hamas's rejection of negotiations. Although the parliament was set up by Oslo, a foothold there would provide Hamas politicians with a platform to criticize Fatah while gathering strength for the next election.
"This will reinforce their position among the people, he said. "They are preparing for the future. They want power, but not now.''