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Hamas hardens campaign rhetoric

Leaders praise jihad and renew calls to fight Israel

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Hamas leaders yesterday concluded their maiden political campaign with a defiant embrace of the militant group's core tenets, vowing to continue their armed struggle until Palestinians rule what is now Israel, denouncing all economic ties with the Jewish state, and declaring peace negotiations ''a failed process."

As Hamas surged in the polls in recent days to a virtual dead heat with the front-running Fatah party in tomorrow's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, some Hamas leaders had floated more conciliatory ideas to attract broader support, including a new willingness to consider talking to Israel.

But leaders of Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, staged a counteroffensive, declaring that Hamas's belated plunge into the political arena proves that Fatah's more pragmatic approach to Israel is the right one.

So Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, struck back in the campaign's final days, playing to Hamas's political base in the destitute Gaza neighborhoods and refugee camps that have supplied many Hamas suicide attackers and that revere them as martyrs. Before crowds of thousands, he and other candidates went out of their way to deny they would ever give up their insistence on the destruction of Israel and the right to armed struggle.

''We are entering the legislative council to make it a project of resistance," he told a cheering crowd last night in the Zeitoun neighborhood, adding, in a jab at Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, ''Do you want to abandon the program of sacrifice and jihad for the program of fancy cars and big salaries?"

Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat, controls the authority, the Palestinian government for the West Bank and Gaza, and dominates the legislative council, the Palestinian parliament. Hamas is running for elections for the first time -- after decades of insisting that only weapons will bring change -- and has steadily gained ground, arguing that Fatah is corrupt and compromised.

Zahar hammered home a fiery stump speech at several campaign stops, including one extravaganza that featured masked and camouflaged Hamas performers leaping through flaming hoops and rappelling down buildings into an enraptured crowd.

Hamas's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, will never be dismantled, as Israel and the US-backed road map peace plan demand, he said.

''They will remain, they will grow, they will be armed more and more until the complete liberation of all Palestine," he said, stressing that Palestine includes not just the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel occupied in 1967, but all of Israel as well.

He vowed to send the brigades to take up positions along Gaza's borders -- a step Israeli officials would surely view as a provocation -- to prevent Israel from sending its army back into the strip it vacated last summer, as Israeli officials have threatened to do if they deem it necessary for security.

Hamas leaders increasingly believe they could win an election that pollsters say is too close to call. If Fatah fails to win a majority in the 132-seat parliament, which approves Cabinet members and the Palestinian Authority budget, it could be forced to consider forming a coalition with the Islamists.

That exuberance was on display in Gaza, home to more than a third of Palestinian voters, where Hamas rallies appeared larger and more frequent than Fatah's. Teenagers in green Hamas gear waved flags at intersections, and parents paraded toddlers swathed in Hamas streamers.

Some Palestinian and Israeli commentators have expressed hope that a role in government could moderate Hamas and force the party to court the international community.

But at the Zeitoun rally, Miriam Farhat, famous for appearing with her son in a ''martyrdom" video before he infiltrated an Israeli settlement and killed five soldiers in a suicide attack, declared, ''Those who say we have changed our methods, we will never change."

In an interview at his home yesterday, Zahar sounded the same note, and denied there was any internal disagreement within Hamas over tactics.

''What internal struggle?" he said, recalling the enthusiastic shouts of ''Vote for Hamas!" and ''God is Great!" that punctuated his speeches. ''All the leadership was there. No one said no."

''The hope of America is to see Hamas disintegrated, like Fatah," he added. ''This is not our case."

Meanwhile, Fatah leaders sought to reenergize their campaign, which has been dogged by infighting and clashes between its military wing, the Al Aqsa Brigades, and security forces, by invoking its founder Arafat, who died in 2004 after dominating Palestinian politics for decades.

Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah's top leader in Gaza, brought reporters on a tour of Arafat's former home, declaring, ''Just as we launched our campaign at the grave of Arafat -- the symbol, the martyr, the glorious one -- we end it here at his blessed home."

He said the election fulfilled a dream of Arafat, who tried and failed to draw rival factions into politics, and ratified his vision of ''a state on the lands occupied after 1967, with a capital in East Jerusalem and a fair solution for the refugees."

Zahar rejected that, saying Palestinians have the right to all the land of Israel, including ''Jerusalem, east and west."

The 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat's crowning achievement that established the Palestinian Authority and its limited rule over the West Bank and Gaza, are ''a dead body," he said in the interview.

Once Hamas enters parliament, he said, ''If we find any trace of Oslo we will kill it. If we find a mouse from Oslo we will kill him."

Zahar, who survived a 2004 Israeli airstrike on his house that killed his oldest son, said in the interview that Hamas would consider a ''long-term cease-fire" with Israel if it pulled back to the 1967 borders, released detainees, and facilitated a transport connection between Gaza and the West Bank.

He laid out Hamas's most detailed program to date: He called for an ''independent economy" that would not trade with Israel, which under agreements with the Palestinian Authority is now the only conduit for Palestinian goods.

He envisioned hundreds of small factories making clothes and furniture, door-to-door delivery of aid to the poor, and increased tourism -- not ''naked tourism," with swimsuits, alcohol and casinos, but ''martyr tourism," showcasing the history of armed struggle. The ministry of culture, he said, would produce novels and poems about jihad.

Those plans don't appeal to everyone in Gaza. Bushra Haddad, 20, an English student at Al Aqsa University, said she feared a Hamas victory would mean ''more pressure on women and less freedom."

And many Palestinians yesterday said they thought Dahlan scored a point Sunday in a televised debate when he asked Zahar how, if he won't cooperate with Israel, he would facilitate daily life, from exporting goods to getting sick people out of Gaza for medical treatment.

''Please be realistic," Dahlan said.

Zahar yesterday blasted Dahlan's Fatah for accepting US funding for its election campaign, support that American officials have acknowledged.

And he dismissed US and EU threats to cut off some of the international aid that provides half the Palestinian budget if Hamas enters the government, saying Hamas would make up the money by retrieving funds stolen by corrupt officials.

Zahar rejected calls for pragmatism by telling the crowd that Ariel Sharon, the gravely ill Israeli prime minister, had said Israel would never leave the Jewish settlements in Gaza, but then pulled out last summer. And, on a more personal note, Zahar said, ''Two years ago, Sharon tried to kill me. Now I am standing here and he is fighting death."

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