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Believers' bloody battle for power: Sarah Helm in Jerusalem assesses the strength of Islamic fundamentalism among Palestinian groups in the occupied territories

THERE is one good thing about the recent violence by the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Gaza against rival factions from the Palestinian mainstream: it shows that the fundamentalists believe peace may be coming.

Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement in the occupied territories, appears to be jostling for power ahead of the setting up of the proposed new autonomous authority in the occupied territories. The movement, which seeks to destroy Israel and create an Islamic State of Palestine, has always rejected the notion of Palestinian autonomy as a paltry compromise. It has declared it would not participate in elections for autonomy because to do so would be to bow to Israel's terms.

Hamas has refused any involvement in the talks, accusing the negotiators from Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, of kow-towing to Israel and the West by talking about less than full-statehood, even for an interim period.

As long as the prospect of peace remained remote and the PLO's achievements in the talks questionable, Hamas was content to snipe at the negotiators from the sidelines. It continued its armed attacks against Israeli targets, confident that its credibility with Palestinians could only increase with every failure notched up by PLO delegates in their talks with the enemy. Now the growth of Hamas' influence is threatened.

A new Labour Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is to be sworn in today. He is committed to Palestinian autonomy within a year. The PLO could, for the first time, make some political gains. If it does, Hamas fears Palestinians may begin to question the validity of the 'rejectionist' cause.

Hamas is now saying it will participate in elections to the autonomous body - in order to fight for its aims from within the new power structure. The violence that has accompanied this change of policy appears to be a struggle for power on the streets. Hamas is showing Fatah and its supporters that autonomy will not mean the decline of the Islamic struggle.

The question is: how much support does Hamas have in the occupied territories and could it win power in the autonomy elections?

The Islamic movement has had influence in the occupied territories through the Muslim Brotherhood for several decades. Its activities have been encouraged at times by Israel as a counter to the PLO. The organisation avoided military means to achieve its ends until the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 1987, when the need for more active protest became apparent.

There was already evidence from the successes of an earlier breakaway Islamic group, Islamic Jihad, that military operations could bring wide support in the occupied territories.

The Muslim Brotherhood, formed Hamas as a military wing in 1988 with the stated aim of 'working to unfurl the banner of Allah over every centimetre of Palestine'. Hamas received money from Muslim communities abroad and direct aid from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It has very close ties with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt, and close links with Muslim groups in Algeria and Sudan.

Hamas' relations with other Palestinian groups are more complex. It has always had close ties with pro-Syrian Palestinian groups which have also tended to reject compromise. While sharing some of the same aims as the PLO, Hamas has always reserved the right to operate its own agenda, seeing the PLO as a largely secular organisation. One of Hamas' founders, Dr Abdel Rentisi, recently attacked the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, for playing the West's game and talking to Israel. Dr Rentisi, a paediatrician, was released from jail in September after two and a half years. He had been charged with founding Hamas and running its operations in Gaza.

During the intifada, Hamas has had its own protest agenda, focusing on the fight against 'corrupt morals'. As disillusion spread about the ability of the Palestinian uprising to achieve any of its aims, many in the occupied territories turned to Islam for new direction.

Some experts say 50 per cent of the people in Gaza and 30 per cent of those in the West Bank support Hamas. The movement is less deeply entrenched in the West Bank, perhaps because conditions have never been quite so desperate and the people are less susceptible to the solace of fundamentalism. But here, too, Hamas has a strong hold, as proved by its successes in some of the recent chamber of commerce elections. The organisation's appeal appears to lie in the connection it makes between proclaiming Islamic ideals alongside Palestinian nationalism.

Palestinian leaders hope the violence between PLO groups and Hamas can be localised, although there is no sign yet of peace between the two. The peace negotiators are aware that inter-Palestinian violence will only be exploited by the Israeli right as proof that peace with the Arabs should be aborted. Meanwhile, some Israeli Arab-watchers are saying that all sides have underestimated the influence of Hamas and are now paying the price.

(Photograph omitted)