Hamas and Israel Put Arafat on a Tightrope

The leader has taken far-reaching steps against terrorism but still faces tough Israeli demands.

Two blocks away from the home of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Muslim militant group Hamas, a small phalanx of Palestinian Authority (PA) police encircles an approaching car full of journalists.

The officers demand a hasty U-turn in the sandy, unpaved road. Not only are reporters no longer allowed to interview the cleric, who has been placed under house arrest, but they are also not allowed to drive by his home to get a glimpse of the security detail posted outside.

Until the signing of the Wye agreement three weeks ago, which set up a new timetable for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume the long-stalled peace process, this neighborhood used to be as free and well-traveled as a shopping mall. The media had unimpeded access to the sheikh, who would spew out criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's peace deal with the Israeli government.

Friends and supporters of Mr. Yassin would file in and out all day, seeking blessings - and advice on how to carry out the goals of the Islamic Resistance Movement he founded, better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas.

Palestinians divide their sympathies among several political movements, including a few communist offshoots of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the two that hold the most sway are Fatah, the PLO's mainstream faction headed by Mr. Arafat, and Hamas, which was founded by Yassin but has powerful branches in surrounding countries, particularly Jordan and Syria. The PLO has for more than 35 years espoused a secular Arab nationalism, promising to provide democracy and independence for Palestinians of all faiths.

But Hamas, founded just over a decade ago as a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, sets its sights on the establishment of a strict Islamic state in all the land that had been Palestine before Israel's establishment. While Arafat agreed in 1993 to accept Palestinian control over only most of the West Bank and Gaza, Yassin says that Palestinians can never make a permanent peace with Israel because the country is non-negotiable Islamic property.

Yassin often speaks in euphemisms. He says that Palestinians have the right to "resist Israeli occupation" and that "operations" will continue. But such operations translate into suicide bombings that shatter lives and the chances for peace, and the "occupiers" that some Hamas members tried to hit last week included Israeli schoolchildren on a bus in the Gaza Strip. (The bomber missed his target, killing an Israeli soldier instead.)

President Arafat has apparently decided that when Yassin speaks, too many people listen. In addition to the unprecedented move of shutting off his megaphone to the world, Arafat has also cut his phone line as well as the lines of all top Hamas officials. He has also arrested a few hundred of them as part of the crackdown he promised to make prior to an Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank.

That leaves Arafat in a difficult position. If his tough stand on terrorism goes too far, he faces the possibility that domestic public opinion will turn against him, as might the guns of Hamas guerrillas. A Hamas communiqu earlier this week suggested as much, warning that Arafat's new undertaking would lead to Palestinian civil war.

On the other hand, earlier this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Arafat had still not done enough to suppress extremism and arrest about 30 fugitives on their "most wanted" list. Only after Israel received written assurances on the issue from the United States did Mr. Netanyahu finally present the Wye agreement to his Cabinet yesterday. The Cabinet was expected to narrowly ratify the agreement, but a vote may not come until today or Sunday.

The leadership of Hamas has distanced itself from the threats of attack on the PA's own officers, but say they could not rule out acts by frustrated individuals within the organization.

"We are doing our best not to reach this point," says Ismail Abu Shenab, a senior official in the group's political wing. But muffling Yassin, he says, makes vigilante militancy more likely.

Arafat, arriving home from abroad on Tuesday, told reporters that there had "not yet" been enough Islamic militants arrested to ensure that they would be disabled from launching any future attacks, at least for the time being.

His security chiefs have been even more open about their new campaign against Hamas, a stark departure from past practice. Fearing a backlash, PA officials would often try to have it both ways: quietly telling the Israelis that they were cracking down on militancy, while telling journalists and local Palestinians that no such clampdown would occur.

Rashid Abu Shbak, the deputy head of the Preventive Security branch, is not trying to candy-coat the new crusade. Asked why Yassin has been placed under house arrest, Mr. Abu Shbak says with a smile: "He needs to be quieted a bit. It was a Palestinian security decision. Circumstances have changed from what they were two months ago."

American and Israeli demands on Arafat to rein in Hamas could further complicate the human rights scorecard he's kept so far. Palestinian officials often convey their irritation with this paradox: Though he is under pressure to keep a lid on extremists, he's often reprehended by local and international watchdogs for keeping people in jail without trial, suppressing freedom of expression, and otherwise violating human rights.

Shbak says the PA will be careful not to hold any political activists against whom there is no evidence of having engaged in planning militant activities. "Anyone who can be proven to have committed a crime will be taken to court. If not, he will be released," he says.

Local papers representing Hamas's viewpoint continue to function. At the offices of Il Risale (The Letter), editor Ghazi Hamad says that two of his writers were arrested.

"Every time the PA makes an agreement with Israel, the price is the head of Hamas," says Mr. Hamad. But even a Hamas newspaper, scathing in its condemnation of the peace agreement with Israel, has red lines. "We know not to write anything about Arafat" criticizing the president personally, says Hamad. "No one can touch him."

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