Hamas wins converts as talks fail

In battle for the hearts and minds of Palestinians, Arafat's Fatah wing is losing out to militant rivals.

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

Abdul Aziz Rantissi's mobile phone rings on the couch where he sits, barefoot, as a heavy rain raps his living room windows.

Friends and colleagues are calling the senior leader of the political wing of Hamas, the Islamic militant group, to see if he has heard about the two Palestinian gunmen who opened fire in downtown Hadera, a city along the northern Israeli coast, killing four Israelis.

"I am very happy," says Mr. Rantissi, as a few gunmen on guard downstairs file into his apartment and flick on the television. The picture is snowy with static, but Rantissi squints and reads the headlines in Hebrew at the bottom of the screen: four dead, 10 injured.

Scores of Palestinians were killed by Israeli military attacks in the aftermath of the Oct. 17 assassination of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi by Palestinian militants, he points out. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon killed 50 Palestinians in the past week. Is it right to ask us to shut up?" he says heatedly.

The attack, it later turns out, is not the work of Hamas. Islamic Jihad, another militant group, takes responsibility. The two gunmen were also members of the Palestinian Authority police, the Israeli army says, further blurring the line between who is leading the intifada against Israel and who is supposed to be in charge of cooling it down.

In the eyes of Hamas and other Islamic militants, however, things are clear: no cooling down, no cease-fire.

It's an outlook that is gaining in popularity. Over the course of the increasingly violent conflict that began 13 months ago and has taken the lives of 730 Palestinians and 191 Israelis, polls show that more Palestinians are looking to Hamas as the group that represents how they want to deal with Israel.

Outside observers have long pointed to Hamas's social-welfare services as a key method for attracting supporters. But Hamas leaders argue that it is their long-standing refusal to talk compromise and their violent attacks on Israel that have convinced more Palestinians that Hamas has been "right" all along.

"Now the Palestinians are trusting us more than ever before," says Rantissi, a physician who has spent time in Israeli and Palestinian jails. "Hamas declared from the beginning that the choice of negotiations is a failure, and that shows the failure of the Palestinian Authority and success of Hamas. We made a choice against negotiations because it will lead to nowhere. Palestinian land will not be liberated except by weapons."

Founded in December 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, Hamas rejects negotiations with Israel and shuns territorial compromise. In addition to its military wing, which uses suicide bombers, the group considers itself a political and social movement whose goal is a Palestinian state based on Islamic law.

Here in Gaza City, a place that looked like a bustling and burgeoning third-world city just over a year ago, the streets are nearly empty. The road that leads to Erez Checkpoint, once filled with workers going to or returning from Israel and trucks bringing goods, is now deserted. Some 60 percent of Palestinians here are out of work, and the suffering is palpable. Amid that deprivation, Islamic militant groups have gained more support, while Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction has lost it.

According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, Fatah's support has dropped from 37 to 29 percent since the Camp David talks collapsed in July 2000, while support for the Islamists increased from 17 to 27 percent. The poll also found that 46 percent of Palestinians desire an Islamic state after the establishment of a Palestinian state.

There are, indeed, regional implications in the rising popularity of Hamas. Satellite feed of the intifada violence has arguably helped it have a broader impact on the Middle East and Islamic world than almost any other period of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Viewers have watched the bloodshed round-the-clock on satellite channels such as Qatari-run Al-Jazeera. That, some experts say, helps account for an apparent increase in funding for Palestinian Islamists, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf states.

And in neighboring Egypt, the government has been investigating a group of suspected Islamic militants. A lawyer who represents some of them and other political sources in Cairo say that the group was involved in raising money "for the intifada" in mosques and university campuses. Although it's not clear whether they were collecting money for Hamas, for many Muslims, the group enjoys higher regard than Arafat's Fatah or his Palestinian Authority (PA).

"Unlike the PA which is usually accused of being inefficient and corrupt, Hamas is known to be of clean conduct," says Prof. Ziad Abu Amar, a member of the Palestinian legislative council and an expert on Hamas. "Muslims are obliged to perform zakkat [giving charity] and for them, they wouldn't find any better direction than to send that money to Hamas, who will both help the poor and fight Israel."

The question of funding has become such a sensitive topic in the wake of Sept. 11 and the hunt for Al Qaeda's benefactors that Hamas officials decline to discuss who supports them or what kind of services they offer the public.

Hamas is growing resentful of what it sees as US pressure on Arab countries to ensure donations to the Palestinians go to the PA, not Islamic groups, says Ismail Abu Shenab, another senior Hamas official in Gaza. Hamas has pulled back from official association with various Islamic institutions and charities here because, observers say, it fears that Arafat will be pressured to close them down. The West is beginning to paint all Islamic institutions as dangerous, says Mr. Abu Shenab.

"This misunderstanding of Hamas makes people angry about what the [US] intelligence services are trying to do. Islam asks us to take care of our neighbors," he says. "There are many attacks on these institutions from the Israeli government, and they want to destroy them and are inciting Americans to make these institutions the enemy. They are pressuring us to surrender."

Mid-sentence, the electricity in Abu Shenab's home flickers out for the second time.

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