Recent terror against Israel suggests shift in strategy

Sunday's bombs may have resulted from ties between Hamas and Israeli

The aqua-green radio next to Mahmoud al-Zahar's desk is something of a time warp: The boxy design, the chunky knob to turn the dial, the dated "high fidelity" and "air transistor deluxe" labeling all hark back to a pre-stereo era decades past.

The most senior political leader of the Muslim militant group Hamas who is not in jail also seems to be moving to an old tune. Even as the Middle East peace process shows new life - confirmed by Israel's release yesterday of some 200 Palestinian prisoners, in keeping with Saturday night's signing of the revised Wye River accord - Hamas remains bent on destroying Israel.

That goal, however, seems to have been hampered of late by regional leaders who have more conciliatory plans in mind. Last week, security forces for Jordan's King Abdullah closed down the offices of Hamas in Amman, Jordan, declaring that it was acting as an unauthorized political organization. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has tightened the reins on Hamas in the past year, and specifically in the past few weeks, when he had another 50 Hamas activists here arrested.

The bloodshed came anyway. Last week, two Israeli hikers were found murdered. The military wing of Hamas took responsibility in a statement. Last Sunday, two nearly simultaneous car explosions in northern Israel killed only the vehicles' three occupants, but they bore the mark of suicide bombings that have been the preferred weapon of Hamas since 1994.

Who's being held responsible

In both cases, however, the attacks have turned out to have been perpetrated by Israeli Arabs, a few of the 1 million-odd Israeli citizens who would have considered themselves Palestinians before 1948, and some of whom still do.

This, analysts say, appears to be a change in strategy for Hamas, founded in Gaza more than a decade ago as a local spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Arab countries. By recruiting Arab citizens of the Jewish state, they might succeed in harming Israelis and the peace process without incurring the aftermath that often comes back to haunt Hamas. Bombings launched from the West Bank and Gaza have led Israel to impose strict closures on Palestinian territories, which are economically devastating to the people there.

It is much more difficult, on the other hand, for the leader of the Palestinian Authority to be blamed for activities planned outside of the territory he controls.

"You don't have to be in Nablus [in the West Bank] to be a member of Hamas," says Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. "What better way to conceal your tracks than to use Israeli Arabs," says Dr. Ranstorp, who is researching a book on Hamas. "It is natural for the movement to exploit Israeli Arabs. They can move in and out of any area, except maybe Gaza, with no problem."

Both the Islamic movement in Israel and Hamas deny there is any such cooperation. But Dr. Zahar says that what he calls "Palestinians inside the Green Line" - Israel's borders before the 1967 war - are natural soldiers in Hamas's battle against Israel.

"It is a right of every Muslim from an Islamic point of view to defend the Holy Land," says Zahar, a bearded physician who's been in and out of both Israeli and Palestinian Authority jails. "Anyone fighting the occupation should do the best to achieve their rights. The Hamas project is present in the mind of every Muslim."

Potential fifth column?

This tactical shift of Hamas, if it turns out to be accurate, deeply concerns Israelis. The possibility of the militant group making inroads among Israeli Arabs is being seen as a potential fifth column that could undermine Israel from within.

"Hamas is part of the Palestinian movement, but they [Hamas] think of this as a problem between Muslims and Jews, not Israelis and Palestinians, so that makes a great problem for Israeli Arabs," says Ruby Rivlin, a member of Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But perhaps no one is as concerned as the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs who are loyal citizens eyeing their struggle as a peaceful one for equality and social justice. "We have no connections with Hamas or any extremist Palestinian movement," say Abdul Malik Dahamshe, the chairman of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who is also a Knesset member. "We Arab leaders have been all the time against murder and against terrorists."

Adds Hassan Sabieh, deputy mayor of Mashhad, home to one of the bombers: "People here are very angry about the person from our village who made this accident. We believe we should live together with Jewish people in this country. We are citizens of Israel."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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