Hamas Victory Legitimizes Party in Palestine

Hamas' victory in the parliamentary elections in Palestine has suddenly legitimized the radical Islamic group.

At the height of the latest Palestinian uprising two years ago, the militant Islamic organization Hamas was responsible for a devastating flow of suicide bombers into Israeli cities. Hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed in bars, restaurants and on buses.

Hamas Snuffed Out

In response to this deadly traffic the Israeli military adopted a deadly response.

The tactic was called "targeted assassination."

Leaders of Hamas and other militant organisation were tracked from the air and their cars destroyed by missiles fired from Israeli military helicopters. At first the tactic caught the world's attention. Nowadays it has become commonplace, almost routine.

The Israelis succeeded in killing a large number of the most notorious Hamas leaders, and not just those involved in violence. In March 2004 Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of the movement was killed as he was being driven to his mosque.

His death followed that of a number of other political leaders of Hamas and signalled a new Israeli determination to decapitate the organization. For a while it seemed to work.

At ABC News in Gaza we found it harder and harder to find Hamas spokesmen to interview. They had gone to ground, too scared to be caught in the open by the ever-present "eye in sky" of Israeli drones.

Out in The Open

For the past year, however, Hamas has been observing a truce or period of calm. Under those circumstances the Israeli military has stopped targeting the group's leadership.

But now, Hamas has won the Palestinian election and there is a new-found confidence and legitimacy to the organisation's leaders. ABC News has once again been talking to them on the streets of Gaza and in studios in Beirut and Damascus.

If the group's senior political leader Khaled Meschal ever returned to the Palestinian Territories from exile, could Israel resist the temptation to target him?

Israeli security forces tried to kill him before when he was in Amman several years ago in a bungled poisoning attempt that caused a damaging international incident. Since then their technique has improved, however.

But now Meschal is the leader of the party that was democratically elected to power by the vast majority of Palestinians. He is also the leader of an organisation that refuses to recognise Israel.

For Israel's military, the temptation to target him may be great, but the diplomatic fallout of doing so may be even greater.

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