Wallace: Hamas reverses position
By Kelly Wallace
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.
JERUSALEM (CNN) – Hamas, the militant Palestinian group responsible for many suicide bombings against Israelis, threw down the gauntlet Friday, saying it was cutting off cease-fire talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, accusing Abbas of selling out to Israel this week at a peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan.
"He gave the Jews what they did not deserve," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, said Friday, as Hamas organized rallies throughout Gaza to try and send a message to Abbas.
The move represents a surprise reversal because immediately after the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit, Hamas leaders said they were still willing to talk with the prime minister about a possible halt in attacks against Israelis, even as the group's leaders rejected Abbas' call for an end to the armed intifada against Israel.
"We must sit down and discuss the cease-fire," Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas spokesman, told CNN Wednesday. "We are talking and discussing the cease-fire."
Thursday, Hamas sources said the group's leaders might sit down with Abbas as early as Friday afternoon.
What changed? Two events appear to be key, according to Palestinian sources.
At a late-night meeting Thursday, Hamas members evaluated Abbas' speech in Aqaba, a Hamas leader, who did not want to be identified, told CNN. The members said they were "astonished" at Abbas' call for all militant groups to lay down their weapons and decided there were "amazing differences" between his speech in Jordan and his message during a meeting with Hamas on May 22, the source said.
"We are unable to continue discussions ... until we [learn] the real attitude" of Abbas, the Hamas leader said. "Who is Mahmoud Abbas?"
Also Thursday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Hamas members during a raid on a West Bank home near the village of Tulkarem, Israeli security sources said.
The two men, accused by Israel of planning a suicide bombing attack, refused to leave the home and surrender to soldiers, according to the security sources. However, Palestinian sources, citing eyewitness accounts, said the men did not resist.
Ziad Abu Amr, a senior Palestinian cabinet minister, told CNN that he believed the Israeli military action was the reason Hamas decided to cut off talks with the Palestinian prime minister.
Hamas leaders have said that all Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza must end, including what Palestinians call assassinations of members of militant Palestinian groups, before Hamas could agree to a cease-fire.
Aides to Abbas said they have not been formally told of Hamas' decision and insist the dialogue will continue.
The move by Hamas might be a political tactic, with Hamas leaders trying to send a message to Abbas that they want to be taken seriously, observers said.
At the same time, the group is facing pressure to give Abbas a chance, with leaders conceding this week that there is a new "reality" in the region.
"Hamas is learning the reality ... the new developments in the region ... and is trying to pass this period in a way that would preserve the Palestinians' legitimate rights," Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, told CNN in an interview Monday.
Part of that new reality is new pressure from moderate Arab leaders following terror attacks in their back yards, with recent blasts in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
The pressure is also coming from home, with many Palestinians urging Hamas to back the Palestinian prime minister.
"I think they should try the cease-fire option and go through the 'road map' in a correct way – and if it doesn't succeed, they can go back to violence," said a Palestinian woman in Gaza, who has not seen her daughter in nearby Jerusalem since the uprising began 32 months ago.
But not everyone in Gaza agrees.
"I think that with the Jewish people, there is no thing named cease-fire," a Palestinian man said.
Hamas has called a meeting of militant Palestinian groups for Saturday night to discuss how to deal with Abbas.
The stakes are high for the Palestinian prime minister. If he fails to get an agreement with Hamas, he is faced with two stark choices -- trying to disarm the group with force and possibly leading to a civil war, or watching the Mideast "road map" crumble like so many other peace plans of the past.
The most likely scenario, observers say, is that Hamas will ultimately agree to talk with the prime minister, who predicted last week that he would have a cease-fire with all militant Palestinian factions, not just Hamas, within three weeks.
But even if Abbas wins a cease-fire, he still faces pressure from the United States and Israel to fully dismantle all the militant groups.
His success or failure will affect not only the future of the Mideast road map, but also his stature and legitimacy on the Palestinian street, and his ability to lead his people in the future.