News Analysis: Hamas, Once Ignored by Israel, Now Poses Serious Threat to Peace

They say that the death squads of Izz a-Din al-Kassam, the military branch of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, number only several dozen.

But that seems to be all they need to pose a serious threat to the Middle East peace process.

Despite their small numbers, much of Hamas’ strength derives from the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians support it — many of whom do not even know what the inside of a mosque looks like.

The irony of the matter is that 10 years ago the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Gaza Strip was so weak, so unimportant, that so-called Israeli “Arab experts” even encouraged their activities.

The thinking on the part of these experts was simple: a strong fundamentalist movement would dilute the strength of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As a result, Israel would be able to divide and conquer.

Conquer? After six years of the Palestinian uprising, after an additional year since Israel and the PLO signed the Palestinian self-rule accord, it seems clear that Israel has not managed to conquer the roiling hatreds of Gazan or West Bank Palestinians.

Divide? Yes, the PLO and Hamas are divided. But nowadays PLO officials fear Hamas, their leading political rival, at least as much as the Israelis do.

When President Clinton pressed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat during a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to clamp down on Hamas terror attacks, Arafat reportedly replied, “I’m their main target and, of course, I’m doing everything I can. Why wouldn’t I do everything if I’m their main target?”

It is clear from his recent actions that Arafat is not eager to tackle Hamas head on.

Roundups of Hamas activists by the Palestinian police under Arafat’s control have been followed by their release within a matter of days.

WEAPONS NOT COLLECTED

Beginning in May, when self-rule officially began, Palestinian authorities have repeatedly announced that they were going to collect weapons from Hamas followers. Such collections have so far not taken place.

At the Cairo meeting this week, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented Arafat with the choice of supporting Israel or supporting Hamas. To this Arafat gave the non-committal reply that he supports “the peace of the brave.”

With its threats of all-out Palestinian civil war, Hamas has indeed weakened the PLO, at a time when Israel needs a strong PLO.

Instead, as the Oct. 19 suicide bus bombing in Tel Aviv proved — to cite only one instance — Hamas has become strong enough to deliver a death blow to the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Not even Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the ailing, crippled leader of Hamas who has been in an Israeli jail since 1989, can influence his followers.

Yassin, 58, founded the Majd al-Mujaheddin radical Islamic organization in the early 1980s, a Gazan echo of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Like his Teheran counterparts, he carried an appealing message: Islam is the solution to everything, to personal as well as national problems.

Yassin, paralyzed since he was 12 from a soccer injury, soon emerged not only as spiritual leader but also as clandestime military commander.

He was arrested in 1984 by the Israeli authorities and sentenced to 12 years in jail for the illegal possession of weapons and explosives. A year later, he was released in a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Two years after that, he became spiritual leader of the Palestinian uprising. Hamas — an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement and an Arabic word meaning “fervor” — came into the world on Dec. 14, 1987, five days after the intifada began in the squalid refugee camps of Gaza.

When Yassin was brought before an Israeli military court in 1991 for his involvement in the murder of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa’adon, and for inciting violence, he voiced his followers’ resentments.

‘HISTORY WILL NOT FORGIVE YOU’

“The Jewish people drank from the cup of sorrow and lived dispersed in the world,” he said. “Now the same people want to force the Palestinians to drink from the same cup. History will not forgive you, and God will judge us all.”

The military branch of Hamas was founded at the beginning of 1988 by Sheik Salah Shehade, a follower of Yassin’s who was dean of students at the Islamic University in Gaza City.

This branch, the Izz a-Din al-Kassam Brigades (named for the leader of a terrorist group that operated during the British Mandate), operates almost independently of the political movement. It receives its marching orders directly from Hamas headquarters in Jordan and Syria.

While the military wing makes the headlines, the political branch has steadily built popular support by building kindergartens, schools, clinics, hospitals, and, more than anything else, mosques.

Its moneys come from ordinary Palestinians who make donations, but more importantly, from funds supplied by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Islamic groups throughout the world.

As recent events have shown, Islamic fundamentalists have succeeded in threatening the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

But there are strong moderate elements within Hamas that support political action, people who feel that the organization can achieve more by participating in the upcoming Palestinian elections in Gaza and the West Bank.

For that to happen, the PLO needs to give Hamas a chance to play a fair and nonviolent political game — and so do the Israelis.

There is absolutely no guarantee that free political involvement on the part of Hamas will stop terrorism. But one thing is for sure — whoever blocks the way of Hamas to the political playing field will face the same group in the terrorist arena.

(Gil Sedan is Arab affairs correspondent for Israel Television. He is currently serving a three-year tour as chief European correspondent for the Israel Broadcasting Authority.)

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