A Sheikh's Words May Alter Peace

Hamas founder, back home this week, says he might halt suicide bombings temporarily.

As Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is wheeled into his salon, well-wishers rise deferentially, as though standing to greet a king. He wears no crown, though. His head is draped in a white cloth.

His home's drab walls are enlivened with welcome messages and portraits of the ailing Islamic preacher, who was released this week after eight years in an Israeli prison.

Sheikh Yassin's return to one of Gaza's typically tattered neighborhoods, although humble, has many in the Middle East waiting to see how much he will alter the shaky peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released the Hamas founder to quell anger in Jordan in the wake of a botched Israeli assassination attempt against another Hamas figure. Now free, he will likely boost Hamas's challenge to the regime of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the attempt to reconcile with Israel.

So far this year, Hamas's militant wing has orchestrated five human suicide bombings - killing 23 Israelis. A minority movement that attracts sympathizers through social welfare services, Hamas seems poised to win new supporters now that it has a bona fide, respected leader to articulate its position as an alternative to Mr. Arafat's Fatah party.

In a byproduct of Yassin's return, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat were prodded to meet Wednesday, their first summit in eight months. Both leaders, wary of Yassin's influence, found more incentive than ever to consult and to move the stalled peace talks forward.

Yassin is seen as more moderate than some of the lower-level leaders of Hamas. King Hussein of Jordan's talk of Hamas offering a possible "cease-fire" to Israel had raised hopes that political negotiations could replace violence.

But speaking in an interview at his home, Yassin said there could be only a temporary halt to hostilities - a concept that would fail to meet Israel's main goals in the peace process.

"It's permitted in Islam to do a temporary truce with the enemy, for a limited period of time. It is prohibited in Islam to make a permanent reconciliation with the enemy," Yassin said.

Nothing to do with Oslo

Yassin also ruled out any chance that Hamas would accept the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian self-rule agreements reached with Israel beginning in 1993.

"We are opposed to what has been signed by the Palestinian Authority. We are well aware that the PA is a party negotiating with Israel, but this has nothing to do with us," he said.

Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas official close to Yassin, said that Yassin's words about a truce had been hypothetical.

"I think people misunderstood Yassin's statement," says Abu Shanab, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza. "He told me he was talking about Islamic history. He is not offering a new initiative." If Yassin were to call off suicide attacks, however, Abu Shanab contends that the Hamas ranks would obey his word.

In recent years, Hamas has seen divisions between its local leadership and those operating abroad, between its military and political wings, between its extremists and self-declared pragmatists. Now, supporters think Yassin will empower and unify the organization.

"He enhances our psychological spirits," says Mohammed Younis, standing in the sandy, unpaved alleys outside the sheikh's house. "If you have a home and this home has a master, this home will be strong and good."

Another fervent youth says he would consider joining the ranks of suicide bombers. "My belief in God pushes me to do this," says teenager Mohammed Yassin, who is not related to the sheikh.

A Hamas sports club

Young men like them ordinarily make use of the Hamas-run Islamic Sports Club down the street, where spray-painted artwork depicts an arm forcing a dagger through a Jewish star. The club's gates were recently locked by Arafat under Israeli and American pressure to shut down the many arms of Hamas's outreach in the wake of two bombing attacks this summer.

Other institutions closed include health clinics, soup kitchens, a Hamas television station, and a newspaper. Working to instill conservative religious values as much as its political views, Hamas even runs a new singles' matching service through its "Chastity Committee for Marriage."

Analysts say Arafat will not continue to close down such popular organizations and not keep newly arrested Hamas activists in jail now that Israel has let the top Hamas man go. The PA's arrest campaign has already been halted, a few of those arrested have been released, and Arafat is expected to ease the clampdown on Hamas-affiliated services.

"All these things are under discussion and review," says Gen. Nasser Youssef, head of the Palestinian police forces in Gaza.

"I'm sure he [Yassin] is going to increase the moderates in Hamas, but the question is whether he can negate extremism," General Youssef says.

Arafat's clout reduced

Arafat came out of the Yassin homecoming looking powerless, having played no role in his release, and taking a back seat to Jordanian and Israeli dealing. But because he cannot be more hard-line than Yassin, the only way to one-up him is to show the tangible fruits of peace to the Palestinians, analysts say. Netanyahu, in an even more humiliating position after the diplomatic fiasco, is equally in need of showing he can do something right by resuming peace talks.

That blunder strengthened their mutual enemy, Hamas - but it also may have acted like a time bomb that has forced Netanyahu and Arafat to move the peace before peace's foes move them.

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