MUSA ABU MARZUK, a top official of the Islamic group Hamas who was detained in New York last week and is being held by immigration authorities, is becoming an international symbol nobody wants.
In a hearing Wednesday, Mr. Marzuk, a US resident for 14 years, offered to renounce his claim to legal status in the US and seek residence elsewhere.
US officials are proceeding with a request by the Israeli government to extradite him - but a deal may be under way avoid that outcome.
``Let's leave Hamas and Marzuk aside,'' says Khalil Jahshen, president of the National Association of Arab Americans. ``The extradition appears to many of us to be part of a whole series of legislative initiatives in which Muslims are targeted.''
State Department spokesman David Johnson told the Monitor that the peace process did not arise in discussions inside the department: ''We view this purely as a legal issue. It is not a political issue. It is a legal issue.''
Yet Mr. Johnson did admit the Marzuk case has important political ramifications - notably increased security in US embassies. Moreover, since Marzuk's detention last week, in at least three separate statements, Hamas leaders have threatened a ``wave of anger and retaliation'' in the US itself if Marzuk is extradited.
Marzuk's extradition could further erode the peace process in the Middle East by making him a rallying point in the divided ranks of Hamas and by undercutting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The move is also strongly opposed by Arab and Muslim groups in America who feel they are being unfairly targeted. In the past week, they have formed a coalition to stop the extradition.
``His extradition may trigger a chain of retaliatory actions against Israel that will in turn force collective punishment on the Palestinians,'' argues Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, former head of the Palestinian negotiating team.
Marzuk was stopped by INS officials on July 26 when his name appeared on the US Immigration and Naturalization Service list of suspected terrorists as he tried to enter the country on a flight originating in the United Arab Emirates. Sources say the name was added to INS ``lookout software'' in the past four months, since Marzuk had traveled to the US in March.
On the surface, the detention looks exactly like the kind of tough law enforcement the US administration has been pushing for in various antiterrorist initiatives dating back to an executive order last January that named Hamas, along with eight other Middle Eastern organizations, including two Israeli-based groups. Both Israel and powerful Jewish groups in the US have backed the antiterrorist push.
Yet now, with a live Hamas leader in custody as part of an aggressive US campaign they supported, authorities in Tel Aviv are divided about the wisdom of having Marzuk extradited. Publicly, the Rabin government must proceed, particularly with protests from settlers and verbal attacks by right-wing Likud Party members in recent days. On Tuesday, Israel filed a brief with the Justice Department charging Marzuk with five separate counts of terrorist activity.
Yet four days ago, Israeli Justice Ministry officials leaked a story saying they had little evidence to convict Marzuk. Indeed, Israeli officials in Washington told the Monitor that in keeping with current US-Israeli extradition law, they would ask the US to hold Marzuk for 60 days in order to build a case. Israel clearly does not want a repeat of the 1993 Demanjanjuk case, when, having spent considerable diplomatic capital to have a suspected Nazi war criminal extradited from the US, Israeli prosecutors could not convict him.
Nor, sources say, is Mr. Arafat keen to have Marzuk on the scene - despite statements welcoming him back to the Gaza Strip, where he was born. In May, Arafat asked King Hussein of Jordan to silence the vocal leaders of Hamas in his country. Prior to that, Marzuk had been known mainly for statements in Jordan calling for Hamas' participation in upcoming Palestinian elections. In June, King Hussein expelled Marzuk.
Many leaders of Hamas, despite invective by those in its military wing, do not want to be forced into taking a stand against the US or Israel.
Marzuk himself is seen as a ''pivotal figure'' in Hamas by a number of Israeli experts, who say his education in the US and wide travels distinguish him from the more provincial local Hamas leaders. ``You are dealing here with a major figure who is both instrumental in foreign relations and also deeply involved in political strategy,'' says Dr. Emmanuel Sivan of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Still, much of the concern expressed by the Arab and Muslim coalition in the US is that Marzuk was a moderate leader of Hamas, and that the group should not be painted as a purely terrorist organization. Members of the Arab-Muslim coalition strongly abhor violence of any kind and reject the association of Islam with violence.
Says Jim Zogby of the Arab-American Institute, ``All three parties are going to get stuck if the administration insists on this extradition. In peace negotiations, like baseball, you need to keep your eye on the ball. Marzuk isn't the ball.''