Hamas 'could take part in elections'

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THE LEADER of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, has for the first time given qualified support for the accord reached between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, writes Charles Richards. According to a report in the London-based Arabic-language daily al-Hayat, Hamas could take part in elections in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Al-Hayat based its report on what it said were letters smuggled out of an Israeli jail written by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual and - most believe - organisational leader of Hamas. Sheikh Yassin was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for ordering the killing of two Israeli soldiers.

Since shortly after the eruption of the intifada in 1987, Hamas has been vying for influence with the nationalist PLO. Hamas, broadly speaking, seeks the liberation of the whole of the land of Palestine, including Israel proper, whereas the PLO has accepted the partition of the land between Israel and some form of Palestinian entity. Until now, Hamas has opposed the PLO-Israel accord reached on 13 September and has continued its campaign of killing Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Sheikh Yassin's letter, if genuine, represents not only a shift in substance but also a clear attempt to play down the differences with the PLO. He insisted that Hamas supported elections for a fully-fledged parliament which could pass laws, rather than merely the Palestinian interim self-government authority set out in the PLO-Israel accord. He said he wanted Hamas to become the party of opposition in such a legislative council.

On the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, Jewish settlers yesterday rioted and kept Arabs off roads to protest against the killing of a settler near Ramallah - a killing which Hamas said it carried out.