News Analysis: Radical Muslim Groups Hampered by Internal Disputes, Peace Climate
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News Analysis: Radical Muslim Groups Hampered by Internal Disputes, Peace Climate

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If ideologies were tradeable commodities, panic orders would be going out to sell Islamic radicalism.

As Middle East leaders contemplate the political landscape — after the Israeli elections and before the start of the U.S. presidential campaign — they detect a small window of opportunity to surge ahead with peace talks.

And Islamic extremist movements — for the moment, at least — are being perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution.

Thus, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat met at the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel this week, their encounter focused on the single most important issue in the peace- making business: security.

Among aides who attended the meeting were Danny Yatom, former Mossad director and now Barak’s chief of staff, and Arafat’s intelligence chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

Yatom outlined the latest Israeli intelligence assessment of Hamas; Dahlan confirmed its accuracy.

At least some of Yatom’s analysis was based on data derived from an intercepted message between Tehran-based Hamas military leader Imad al-Alami and Hamas military leaders in the territories.

Both Yatom and Dahlan agreed that Hamas is deeply divided between the advocates of “violence now,” led by the external leadership of Hamas, Alami and the Amman-based Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, and the advocates of “prudence now,” representing the internal leadership, led by Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Deep as the divisions are, however, sources do not expect the dispute to split Hamas, which is also riven by accusations of embezzlement and internal corruption.

Quite simply, they say, the message reaching the West Bank and Gaza from their Iranian patrons is “moderation.”

Other pressures are also bearing down on the Islamic radicals: Hamas is feeling the heat in Jordan, where its political base appears to be increasingly shaky, while Iran has served notice on Hezbollah that it must prepare to disarm and join Lebanon’s political mainstream.

Jordan, which has in the past used its patronage of Hamas as a lever against Arafat, was this week reported to be cracking down on the movement as a prelude to a complete shutdown of its activities in the kingdom.

Jordanian sources say the government is expected to end the organization’s “political presence” within a matter of days, ostensibly because it suspects that Hamas is becoming deeply involved “in the Jordan arena” — but also, no doubt, as a gesture to Barak.

The main targets of the crackdown are understood to be Masha’al, the most senior Hamas political official in Jordan — and the subject of a botched Mossad assassination bid last year — and Hamas spokesman Mohammed Nazza. Both men were abroad this week.

According to the sources, the Jordanian authorities are concerned that the Amman-based political leadership of Hamas is threatening the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, another Islamist group militantly opposed to Israel’s existence.

First steps aimed at inhibiting the activities of the organization have included rounding up several key Hamas activists and pulling others in for questioning.

The crackdown was apparently triggered by the mysterious emergence of a statement — signed “Hamas Cadres in Amman” — which was circulated in the Jordanian capital this week.

The statement contained a scathing attack on Hamas’ political bureau, which it accused of attempting to take over Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, of conspiring against the internal Hamas leadership, particularly Yassin.

The statement also accused the Hamas “clique” in Jordan of using dirty tricks in its bid to seize control of the Brotherhood.

These tricks included leaks to the media about internal disputes, bogus statements in the name of Brotherhood officials designed to embarrass the leadership, and attempts to incite members of the Brotherhood against their executive bureau.

The Hamas leadership has declined to comment on this attack, but the sources confirm that Brotherhood leaders recently took steps to sever their organizational ties with Hamas.

In Tehran, meanwhile, Iranian authorities have told Hezbollah spiritual leader Hassan Nasrallah that the countdown to the movement’s demilitarization is already under way.

A cover story in the respected Arabic-language al-Majalla this week quoted senior sources close to the Iranian government as saying Nasrallah was told that Hezbollah must start preparing for a purely political role after Israel leaves Lebanon.

The London-based, Saudi-owned newsweekly said a close aide to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had told the Hezbollah leader that Tehran and Damascus will assist the movement’s transition from an ideological militia to a conventional party that is integrated into Lebanese political life.

Khatami is reported to have already started reducing arms supplies to Hezbollah and funding for its military operations. Instead, he has increased financial aid to Hezbollah’s educational, cultural and welfare programs, which form the foundations of the movement’s political support.

Still quoting its Iranian sources, al-Majalla reported that Syria is now closely scrutinizing Iranian arms shipments passing through Damascus en route to Lebanon. And it noted that Syrian officials have recently blocked the transfer of heavy weapons and rockets to Hezbollah.

In a separate interview with the newsweekly, Hezbollah’s political bureau head Mohammad Ra’ad hinted that his movement would not impede any decisions taken by Beirut and Damascus in negotiations with Israel.

But he cautioned that the mere start of negotiations between Israel and Syria will not be enough to persuade Hezbollah to halt its military campaign against Israeli forces in south Lebanon.

“The resumption of negotiations does not necessarily mean that agreements are ready for signing,” said Ra’ad, a member of the Lebanese Parliament.

“Indeed, resistance operations against the Zionist occupation need to be continued and escalated,” he said. “Experience has shown that they have been effective in undermining and weakening the enemy.”

While maintaining Hezbollah’s deliberately ambiguous line about its posture in the event of an Israeli pullout from south Lebanon, Ra’ad indicated that the movement would act pragmatically.

When Israel withdraws from Lebanon, “Hezbollah will consider its operational methods in light of changes and developments.

“There is no need to pre-empt things now,” he added. “Hezbollah will act in accordance with its assessment of the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese – – and of the special relationship with Syria.”

All signs indicate that, with peace in the air, the Islamic radicals are being squeezed and their sources of logistical support are drying up. Equally, however, all bets are off if the revived peace talks falter.

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