Breakaway Hamas group renounces violence

A group of Islamic activists in Gaza yesterday broke away from the Hamas Resistance Movement and launched a new Muslim party which renounced violence and recognised the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a fact of life.

The new organisation, Al Massar ("The Path"), is the first Islamic party to win official recognition from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PNA). It is expected to contest the forthcoming Palestinian elections. Hamas, which is fighting the peace agreement, has not yet decided whether to run.

Israeli analysts suspect that Al Massar is an Arafat front, designed to enhance the PNA's legitimacy and divide the Islamic opposition. Al Massar's secretary-general, Mahmoud Abu Dan, is an officer in Palestinian intelligence. None of the five founding members was in the first rank of Hamas. Leaders of Hamas declined to comment on yesterday's announcement, but were clearly displeased.

In a 17-point manifesto, Al Massar defined the 1993 Oslo agreement as "a fact which cannot be ignored or jumped over". Although the founders disagreed with many of its provisions, they insisted: "We should not talk about abrogating it by force, because our people will suffer. Al Massar rejects violence as a means to change."

Like Hamas and the more extreme Islamic Jihad, the new party repudiated the partition of Palestine between Jewish and Arab states implicit in the Oslo accord, but it endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state in any part of it "liberated" from Israeli rule.

Mr Abu Dan was asked in Gaza yesterday whether Al Massar recognised Israel. "We don't recognise Israel," he retorted. "Our respect for the Palestinian National Authority had nothing to do with respect for Israel or love for Israel."

The Al Massar manifesto argued that the jihad (holy war) would continue till Judgment Day, but its ways and means changed from time to time and place to place. Similar pronouncements by Mr Arafat to Palestinian television audiences are being exploited as evidence of Palestinian duplicity by the Israeli right-wing opposition.

On the still-occupied West Bank, Jewish settlers yesterday shot dead a 23-year-old Palestinian. He was among a throng of Arab protesters who burned a hut erected illegally on vacant land near the settlement of Beth El, north of the Arab town of Ramallah. The settlers were trying to pre- empt government plans to return the land to Palestinian rule. They opened fire when the protesters refused to disperse.

The Israeli Cabinet last night endorsed the partial agreement for extending Palestinian autonomy, initialled on Friday, by 15 votes to one with two abstentions.