Arafat Tightens Screws on Hamas

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By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Palestinian Authority (PA) is planning a follow-up operation to sustain its toughest-ever security crackdown on Islamic militants in Gaza and the West Bank, according to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's top security chief.

In the wake of four suicide bombings that claimed 62 lives, Palestinian security forces have detained 600 to 900 suspected Islamic activists, and the PA has taken control of mosques and Islamic social-welfare organizations.

Most of the political leaders of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for the bombings, are in jail.The PA claims it has arrested 35 of 37 military activists of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad. However, the two leaders of the Hamas military wing, Izzedin al Qassam, in Gaza and the West Bank are still at large.

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

"If we leave them now, they will grow again," says Maj. Gen. Nasr Yussef, director-general of Palestinian public security and police in Gaza and the West Bank.

"The situation requires constant monitoring and control," General Yussef told the Monitor in his Gaza City office in the security complex that once housed the headquarters of Israeli military authorities in the area.

But he said solving the problem of terrorism could not be accomplished quickly: "It cannot be finalized in 24 hours.... It takes time and follow-up operations against those extremists."

Yussef said that Hamas had benefitted from a truce between August and February agreed to by PA and Hamas leaders in attacks against Israelis. The informal understanding was reached in Cairo at the end of December.

In retrospect, "It gave [Hamas] time to rebuild their infrastructure and resume their activities," Yussef says.

Yussef, a big man with a pistol on his hip and large portrait of Mr. Arafat on his office wall, conveys a surprising air of calm for one under intense Israeli and international pressure to curb the suicide bombings. Top Palestinian officials are warning that a sustained Israeli closure of both territories is hampering their security efforts and threatening the peace process.

"Anything is possible," warns Yussef when asked about widespread concerns that the closure could lead to a second Palestinian uprising.

He rejected the condition set last week by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that the PA arrest the head of Izzedin al Qassam in Gaza, Mohammed Dief, before there could be further progress in the peace process. He declined to comment on reports that Palestinian preventative security chief Col. Mohammed Dahlan met Dief shortly before the bombings.

"We appreciate that Israel is facing a difficult situation, but wise leaders should not link the future to particular people," Yussef says. "One party making the other shoulder responsibility for security does not build confidence between the two sides and advance the cause of peace."

"What we need is for both sides to take responsibility and cooperate in building a partnership to deal with the situation ... not to base solutions on reactions to specific individuals," says Yussef, noting that security cooperation between the PA and Israel had become much weaker since the bombings.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli military in Gaza and the West Bank, said that Israel was negotiating with Arafat for security guarantees regarding further easing of the closure to allow exports to leave Gaza and to allow an international plan for creating jobs for Palestinians to go ahead.

"Arafat has to give us further assurances. If we get these, we will be able to ease the closure further," said Mr. Dror. "We don't want to put too much pressure on the Palestinian population. We realize that they might soon perceive the closure to be directed against them and not against Hamas.

"But regarding Palestinian workers, we cannot relax the restrictions because we know Hamas is still planning attacks," he said.

The mood in downtown Gaza over the weekend was one of frustration and depression. At Gaza's first flower exhibition, stall holders complained bitterly about the lack of foreign visitors at the show, held to promote flowers as an export industry. "There is a very poor turnout because of the closure," said flower wholesaler Mohammed Jaber.

"People are feeling frustrated. I still have high hopes for peace, but there has to be an end to the violence," Mr. Jaber said. "Hamas should stop its violence now and give the PA a chance to see where it can go with the peace."

Arafat ordered a halt to contacts between the PA and Hamas after the recent spate of suicide bombings and has not indicated if dialogue with Hamas leaders will resume in the future.

Israel, while acknowledging that Arafat's forces are making a sincere attempt to deal with the threat of further terrorism by militants, has so far done little to ease the crippling impact of a three-week-old border closure, the harshest imposed by Israel since the Gulf war in 1990. Civil rights groups say five people have died because of it.

In the past week Israel has allowed deliveries of foodstuffs, ended the internal blockade of towns within the West Bank, and allowed Palestinian workers on Jewish settlements within the West Bank to resume their jobs.

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