THE Israeli Army's massive weekend crackdown on Palestinian activists has thrown a spotlight on a growing force within the Palestinian community - the fundamentalist Muslim group, Hamas, which has come to rival the Palestine Liberation Organization for leadership of the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. At the same time, the murder of three Jews on Friday in the Arab-Jewish town of Jaffa, the incident that sparked the wave of arrests and deportation orders against Hamas leaders, has prompted new calls from Israeli right-wingers for harsher treatment of Palestinians working in Israel.
Hamas activists in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza claimed responsibility for the three deaths, the latest in a string of knifings over the past two months.
The Israeli authorities reacted fiercely, arresting more than 600 people in Gaza, according to official and Palestinian sources, and issuing deportation orders against four known Hamas leaders. The Arab Lawyers Association says it will appeal the orders.
These orders, the first the Israeli government has decreed in more than two years, drew an immediate protest from Washington, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir ended a visit only last Thursday. United States officials complained that the deportations were in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
``I don't see why the Americans should be so angry about deporting Israel's worst enemies,'' retorted Israeli government spokesman Yossi Olmert yesterday. ``Hamas is a force of destabilization, destruction, and violence. We are not going to tolerate a raging campaign of terrorism, and we've targeted Hamas because they are behind it.''
Friday's murders marked the third anniversary of the foundation of Hamas, a wing of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which has branches all over the Middle East. Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, has grown spectacularly in Gaza, Palestinian sources there say, feeding on disappointment with the results of the three-year intifadah against Israeli occupation.
Hamas has been engaged in a tussle with PLO-linked figures for leadership of the intifadah, and despite an agreement six months ago to coordinate activities, the fundamentalists are clear rivals with more traditional leaders for Palestinian loyalties.
It is a rivalry from which they have benefited. ``Hamas has been the single strongest organization in the Gaza Strip in recent months,'' a local resident says. ``You can see them growing in the numbers of people going to the mosque, in the numbers who join their marches, in the slogans on the walls.''
Some Palestinians argue that with the recent wave of stabbings, Israel is suffering the consequences of its own policies.
``They are reaping what they themselves created,'' says Hanna Siniora, editor of the Palestinian daily Al Fajr. ``For years, the military authorities tried to create alternatives to the political national leadership of the Palestinian people and the PLO. They encouraged fundamentalists, and they allowed them to work with the blessing of the authorities. Today they are reaping the fruit of what they sowed.''
Hamas's brand of extremism, which differs from the PLO in not accepting Israel's existence and in calling for the creation of an Islamic, not secular, Palestinian state - is doing well in the impoverished Gaza Strip. In recent elections for bodies such as the association of engineers and refugee liaison groups, Hamas-linked candidates have won a majority.
Several events this year, most recently the Gulf crisis and the Temple Mount killings of at least 20 Palestinians, ``have inflamed the emotions of the man in the street in the territories,'' warns Mr. Siniora. ``We are entering a very grave period, and the acts of violence are a sign of the danger of the situation.
But mass arrests and deportations, he worries, ``only add oil to the fire raging at the moment.... They will backfire. Hamas will grow stronger and even more extreme people will step in'' to the deported leaders' shoes.
Mr. Olmert discounts such fears. ``What else can happen, it's as bad as it can be,'' he complains. ``We have decided to clamp down on who we think are the hard core of Hamas to prevent further bloodshed, and this is a clear statement to everyone that we are committed to dealing with this terrorism.''
As in the wake of previous stabbings, Friday's murders have prompted a chorus of demands from right-wing Israeli politicians for drastic measures against Palestinians. While some, such as Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, favor banning all Palestinians from working in Israel, others are calling for imposition of the death penalty, currently applicable in Israel only to Nazi war criminals.
Police Minister Ronnie Milo also favors the death penalty ``with some crimes and with some criminals.'' And Moshe Arens, the defense minister, said yesterday that he supports the death penalty in the case of ``especially serious'' cases.
The Cabinet, which met yesterday, was expected to turn down such suggestions. But a government source said the authorities would henceforth ensure ``much stricter application of existing policies, such as scrutiny of those [Palestinians] working in Israel and stricter checks on work permits.''
The Israeli government estimates that of the approximately 120,000 Palestinian residents of the Israeli-occupied territories who work in Israel, only 70,000 have permits to do so. More than 10,000 Palestinians who have security records are forbidden to enter Israel for any reason.