JERUSALEM (Jan. 7)
The arrest of 22 members of a Hamas terrorist gang, coming on the heels of Israel’s deportation of 415 Moslem fundamentalists, has dealt a severe blow to the Islamic activists.
But politically, Hamas seems to be stronger than ever.
Even before this week’s announcement that the 22 were behind bars, detention, death and flight to Egypt had led to erosion in the ranks of Izz a-Din al-Kassam, the military branch of Hamas.
Experts here now estimate that only 50 or so of the terrorists remain at large and that they, too, are mostly on the run.
But that is only part of the picture. Izz a-Din al-Kassam is a collection of small terrorist squads with only tenuous links among them.
Analysts say that even the relatively small number of members that have evaded arrest can quickly attract new recruits and carry out ad hoc acts of terrorism.
The fact is that despite its recent success in apprehending Hamas gangs, Israel’s Shin Bet security service is faced with unsolved killings.
Still at large are the murderers of three Israeli soldiers in Gaza on Dec. 7, reservist Yuval Tutjani in Hebron on Dec. 12, Border Police Sgt. Maj. Nissim Toledano on Dec. 13 and Shin Bet agent Haim Nahmani in Jerusalem on Jan. 3.
Hamas claimed responsibility for all of those attacks.
Hamas’ organizational structure has undoubtedly suffered a setback since Israel expelled most of its top officials to Lebanon. In the absence of most of the movement’s leadership, Moslem colleges and mosques no longer offer as safe a shelter for terrorists.
But the success of the Israeli offensive has not weakened the position of the Hamas in the Palestinian community.
Three weeks after the expulsions of the Moslem fundamentalist activists, secular and religious Palestinians alike have rallied behind the deportees, exerting pressure on Palestinian negotiators to stay away from the Middle East peace talks.
This popular support will undoubtedly make the remnant leadership’s task of replenishing the ranks of Hamas all that much easier.