Hamas casts long shadow over Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

>GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Hamas is casting a long shadow over Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Although weakened by harsh economic sanctions and feeling more isolated after last week’s Mideast peace conference in the United States, the Islamic militants retain a tight hold on Gaza and have the power to disrupt future negotiations with increasingly deadly rocket attacks on Israel.

The Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders haven’t let on whether they’ll confront, co-opt or try to ignore Hamas, while deepening divisions between ideologues and pragmatists make the group more unpredictable.

For now, the hard-liners who led the violent takeover of Gaza in June are still in charge, blocking any move toward compromise.

In an interview, their spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, dismissed the Mideast conference at Annapolis, Md., which relaunched peace talks after seven years of bloody deadlock, as a meaningless ceremony.

He shrugged off the participation of more than a dozen Arab states, including Hamas’ main Arab ally, Syria, as a sign of Arab weakness under U.S. pressure. Hamas is more pivotal than ever, he insisted.

“Simply, no party can dictate its program on the region without Hamas,” he said.

But another senior Hamas official, representing the pragmatic wing, said the group was caught off guard by the heavy Arab turnout at Annapolis and feels increasingly sidelined. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his views contradict the official line.

Hamas is already being shunned by much of the world because of its violent ideology, rejection of peace talks and call for the destruction of Israel. It has had trouble providing even basic services, mainly because of the near complete closure of Gaza’s borders by Israel and Egypt. One Arab diplomat said he expects Hamas to run out of money by the summer.

For now, though, Hamas’ rule over Gaza’s 1.5 million people appears unshaken.