US Targeted in Mideast Power Play

Militant Hamas, with leader in New York jail, vies with Arafat

The militant Palestinian group, Hamas, is warning that extradition of one of its leaders from the US to Israel will spark regionwide unrest - and could provoke attacks against American targets. These rumblings from Hamas have tapped into widespread discontent among Palestinians who believe the Mideast peace process has so far brought them little return.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, has been the chief rival of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in territories once occupied by Israel. It rejects compromise or peace with the Jewish state.

Despite "a new attitude and a new beginning" expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after meeting with Mr. Arafat Sunday in Davos, Switzerland, and further talks between the two leaders set for Thursday, any resurgence of Hamas will undermine Arafat's ability to maneuver.

Hamas leaders say that extradition of Mousa Abu Marzook - head of the political wing of Hamas and its chief strategist - for trial in Israel will be the "straw that breaks the camel's back" and may result in violence.

Mr. Marzook - now in a New York City jail - last week gave up a 19-month legal fight against extradition to Israel, prompting the shrill Hamas warnings.

Arafat has asked the US not to extradite Marzook, because if he is put on trial in Israel, he could become a rallying point for Hamas supporters, who oppose the peace process. If those supporters were to set off bombs, the peace process could be undermined, thereby weakening Arafat - and his new partner in peace, Mr. Netanyahu.

Despite Netanyahu's tough policy of combatting terrorism, diplomats have detected Israeli reticence about the extradition, fearing a promised backlash.

Netanyahu's office yesterday denied reports that it is rethinking the extradition request.

"Until now, Hamas has not considered America a direct enemy," Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader and physician, said this weekend in an interview at his Gaza clinic. "So, if now America is kidnapping Marzook and handing him over to the Israelis, this is a new American policy.... This means the Americans and Israelis are looking for more waves of violence in the area," he said.

In light of past Hamas suicide bombings against Israelis, the US State Department is taking the warnings seriously. Last week, it urged Americans in the region to be vigilant for their safety.

Palestinians also give weight to the warnings, though some reports suggest that Marzook's decision to give up his battle against extradition may have been coordinated with top Hamas leaders - to give Hamas a political boost.

But the possible extradition presents Hamas with a no-lose situation, and coincides with failing optimism in self-rule areas, where economic benefits of peace barely exist and Arafat's security forces have acted with a heavy hand.

Arafat has kept Hamas under control in recent months, arresting some 1,000 members and sympathizers. But more than 900 of those have been freed since the election of Netanyahu last May, when Israel was seen to be stalling the peace process.

Arafat has also tried to co-opt Hamas leaders, but pressure has mounted on him from Palestinian hard-liners to ease the crack-down. Until now Hamas has kept a low profile.

For analysts trying to gauge Hamas's ability to disrupt the peace process with new attacks, the potential spark of Marzook's handover to Israel is clear.

Recent disruptions include the reaction to the killing - reportedly by Israel - of Hamas bombmaker Yehia Ayyash a year ago. His death prompted Hamas revenge: it was responsible for three of the four bombs that left scores of Israelis dead and Prime Minister Shimon Peres defeated at the polls.

Support for Hamas among Palestinians has dropped since the bombings, however, as self-rule lands were "closed" and thousands of Palestinian workers couldn't get to jobs in Israel.

A more recent indication of tension came in the fall, when the opening of a tunnel beside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem ignited days of street battles. Tension is also building, Palestinians say, despite the recent deal on Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.

"Violence is now latent, but remember how the intifadah [uprising] started by an car accident at a Gaza checkpoint in 1987," says Aown al-Shawa, mayor of Gaza City. "There was no decision, just an accumulation of frustration."

Marzook lived for 15 years with his family in Virginia, and ran extensive Hamas operations and fund-raising efforts.

He has been held since July 1995, when immigration officials found his name on a "watch list" of suspected terrorists as he flew into New York. He could be handed over to Israel within 60 days.

Israel has accused Marzook of planning and financing attacks in Israel, and a US district judge last May ruled he may have been involved in a series of attacks in Israel between 1990 and 1994 and could therefore be extradited.

Hamas's Dr. Zahar calls Marzook a "very moderate man" who "committed no single fault while in America."

Some 95 percent of Hamas's estimated $70-million annual budget goes to a large network of hospitals and charities.

One Palestinian who doesn't openly support Hamas calls Marzook "the soul of Hamas."

Sending him back "will be like killing someone."

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