News Analysis: Hamas rifts spark killing of Israelis in violent spiral

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JERUSALEM — A rift has emerged in Hamas that sparked the latest wave of terrorism in Israel.

Signalling the split were conflicting leaflets in eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Shortly after Sunday's Jerusalem attack a leaflet signed by "the new disciples of Yehiya Ayash" was distributed in eastern Jerusalem by the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing.

Ayash, the Hamas mastermind behind a series of terror bombings against Israelis, was killed in January at his Gaza hideout — and Israel was believed responsible.

The leaflet, repeating an offer made after the Feb. 25 Jerusalem bus bombing, proposed a cessation of Hamas terror in exchange for Israel's commitment to stop pursuing Hamas members.

"We stop our armed struggle against Israel for three months, on the condition that the persecution of our people be stopped," the pamphlet said.

Another leaflet was distributed later, also signed by Hamas, denying the previous leaflet and committing the organization to continued terrorism.

The next day a Hamas suicide bomber struck in the heart of Tel Aviv.

The division's roots stretch to the founding of Hamas in the early days of the Palestinian uprising in late 1987.

Hamas began as an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. Unlike the militant Islamic Jihad group, Hamas aspired to take over the Palestinian community first by providing social, educational and medical services.

The military Izz el-Din al-Qassam group came later. The rifts that grew evident this week reflected the divergent tactics of the Qassam militants and the Hamas leadership.

Pinhas Inbari, in his new book "The Palestinians Between Terrorism and Statehood," describes the rift as ideological and as a clash of personalities.

Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, serving a life sentence in Israel for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, held a power base in Gaza.

Izz el-Din al-Qassam leader Abu Marzuk opened offices in Tehran and Damascus, and planned terrorism to complicate Israel-Palestinian ties.

But Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said: "It is not the statements that make the difference, but the explosives."

Quiet prevailed since a Hamas suicide bomber destroyed a bus in August in Jerusalem as Arafat and Hamas negotiated. But the latest attacks signal the militant Hamas wings have decided to forgo moderation .

After the killing of Ayash, the militants had their excuse.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority head Arafat is caught in a bind. After the second Jerusalem attack, and under Israeli pressure, he outlawed the military wings of Hamas and began a series of mass arrests in the territories.

But Hamas radicals number only in the dozens, while the broader movement comprises some 20 percent of Palestinians.

Arafat cannot engage in an all-out confrontation with Hamas if he wants to maintain Palestinian harmony. Yet failure to act may stop the peace process.

While Palestinians had hoped the peace process would bring them better economic conditions, they find themselves being dragged into an increasingly bitter conflict with Israel.

Now the Israeli Cabinet has adopted a $100 million plan to separate Israelis and Palestinians, which could prevent some 60,000 Palestinians from reaching jobs in Israel.

It is a no-win situation for Israel and the Palestinians; Israel has lost its sons and daughters; Palestinians are losing their livelihood.