Weaker Hamas retains support

Fourteen militants were killed Tuesday after Israeli helicopter gunships attacked a Hamas training camp.

Hamas turned one of its most painful setbacks in four years of fighting with Israel into a macabre popularity festival Tuesday, as 30,000 Palestinians participated in the funerals of 14 militants taken by surprise on their training ground by Israeli helicopter gunships.

In a sense, it was a nonviolent - though armed - Hamas takeover of Gaza's streets, with youths planting the green Hamas flag above electricity poles and hanging from the sides of packed trucks, as marchers carried the corpses on stretchers and masked gunmen fired off shots in tributes to the dead.

The turnout and fervor is one indication that despite the loss of key leader Abdul Aziz Rantissi and the movement's founder, Ahmed Yassin, to Israeli assassinations last spring, Hamas has retained its appeal in the eyes of Palestinians as the prime alternative to the Palestinian Authority and leading challenger to Israel.

"The Palestinian street still supports Hamas," says Moshe Marzuk, an analyst at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. "Hamas's military wing has been hard hit. There is a leadership vacuum. But its social-services network is intact, and it still has strong political power in the Palestinian street."

As the funeral procession reached Omari Mosque downtown, a bearded Hamas activist yelled over a microphone: "Who is your movement?"

"Hamas," roared the crowd.

"Who is your army?" he asked. "Izzedin al-Qassam," they shouted back, referring to the armed Hamas wing that has carried out dozens of suicide attacks against Israel, most recently a twin bus bombing in Beersheba last week that killed 16 people.

"Death to the collaborators, death to Israel, death to the United States," the activist chanted, followed by the crowd.

"We have lost 14 soldiers, but Izzedin al-Qassam is a sea. It is nothing. We have 150,000 soldiers," said the activist.

Later he added: "Our response to the crime is coming. The attack on Beersheba is only one part of many strikes to come."

Beyond the bravado, there was intense anger and acute embarrassment over the Israeli helicopter attack on the training ground of Izzidin al-Qassam, actually a large soccer field in the Shajaiya neighborhood. At least five helicopter missiles struck the soccer field after midnight Monday. Of the 32 wounded, 12 were still in Shifa Hospital Tuesday, four of them in critical condition, according to Dr. Bakir Abu Safia, head of the emergency department.

It was the first time in four years of fighting that the Army had targeted such a large group of militants. Like the assassinations, the helicopter strike made obvious that Israel is receiving precise intelligence from collaborators who are well placed to monitor Hamas.

Residents of Shajaiya said that as they began to evacuate the wounded, the helicopter gunships struck again.

"I carried away people who were between life and death, hoping our Lord would restore them," recalled a man who identified himself only as Marwan, who lives across from the soccer field that he admitted "was a training place for Izzedin al-Qassam."

Asked whether Hamas had not brought the deaths upon itself with the Beersheba bombings, Marwan responded that the Israeli Army attacks the Palestinians constantly, regardless of whether the Palestinians strike first. "They took all our property, they took our lands, they are the occupiers who make aggression against us," he said.

The Israeli army said it struck a field where "senior Hamas terrorists" had trained militants. "No one is immune when he carries out terrorist attacks against innocent civilians," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Mr. Marzuk, the Israeli analyst, said the missile strike and other military pressure "have a cumulative effect that makes it harder for them to carry out attacks. They have to worry about their own safety and to keep switching places. People become less willing to cooperate with them."

It took Hamas until last week to make good on vows to avenge Sheikh Yassin's death, something that may have eroded its credibility but has not dented its street popularity, says Palestinian journalist Said Ghazali. "Militarily they are weaker and cannot respond immediately. They have big words but cannot do a lot of deeds."

Still, Mr. Ghazali added: "Today Hamas dominated the streets, its popularity is still high. The reason for this is that people have no hope and are in despair. When there is no hope for any political negotiation or solution, this radicalizes the Palestinians."

Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, says that even without Mr. Yassin, Hamas has been able to keep up its health, education, and food distribution activities, helping to ensure continued popularity, and to cast itself as a cleaner alternative to the widely perceived corruption of the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas has announced it will participate in municipal elections in December and Mr. Eid predicts it will do well. "The Israeli attack was an embarrassment, but it is not going to affect Hamas in the long term," says Eid. "They survived and will continue surviving under any kind of circumstance. They are believers and believers think they have to suffer from time to time."

Wire services were used for this report.

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