As hope dwindles, Hamas thrives

With little faith in the peace process, Palestinian support for Hamas swells - as does resistance to a crackdown.

There are whispers of civil war. But Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that is the main Palestinian opposition force, appears confident that it can endure whatever the Palestinian Authority is willing to mete out.

In one of his last interviews before being placed under house arrest last week, Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin stressed that the PA and Hamas "are in the same trench," against Israel. But the sheikh also called for more of the suicide bombings that have embarrassed the PA and subjected it to the most intensive Israeli and international pressure since the start of the latest Palestinian-Israeli confrontation more than a year ago.

Talk of civil war is not new. Hamas's relations with the Palestinian Authority, and before that the PLO, have veered close to all-out confrontation several times, including in 1994 and 1996. But the difference between now and then is that there is no "political horizon" or diplomatic process that provides hope to the average Palestinian, Israeli and Palestinian analysts say. Which side enjoys the upper hand has always been determined by whether the peace process offers any hope for betterment under the PA, analysts say.

"Hamas thrives on violence and confrontation, and is reduced in size tremendously when there is a successful peace process," says Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster and political scientist. "Today, only 11 percent of Palestinians believe there is a peace process. Support for a crackdown is almost nonexistent."

Under Israeli pressure, the PA has arrested dozens of Hamas leaders and activists, but Israel has dismissed the campaign as insufficient. Five Palestinians, four of them members of the security forces, were killed during Israeli army actions in the West Bank, and several Israelis were wounded yesterday in a suicide bombing in Haifa that was claimed as revenge for Israel's assassination last month of Hamas armed-wing leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud.

Polls show that 13 years after it declared itself as a challenger to the secular nationalism of the PLO, Hamas is edging out Arafat's Fatah faction as the most popular Palestinian grouping, boosted by the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the radicalization of Palestinians.

The prospect of civil strife became more tangible last week with the death of a protester, Muhammad Selim, believed to have been shot by PA security forces. But Hamas is hoping that its popularity, and its forging of an alliance with grassroots activists of Fatah, will protect it.

"It's OK for the PA to speak of there being only one authority," says Ahed Abu Atta, chairman of the student council at the Hamas-run Islamic University. "But the authority should be in line with public opinion. People want resistance against occupation."

The Hamas arrests have been so unpopular that Arafat supporters, such as Hasan Safi, a Fatah student leader, justifies them by arguing they are carried out "in order to protect some of the personalities from assassination."

Back in the 1980s, the Israeli military planners who facilitated the growth of Islamic fundamentalist institutions in the occupied territories hoped they would challenge PLO influence.

The Gaza Strip wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by Sheikh Yassin, an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, preached a return to what it defined as true Islam and an education free of Western values.

Under Israeli occupation, the brotherhood was able to build up a network of mosques, clinics, childcare centers, sports clubs, vocational training programs, charities, and schools.

It is this grassroots network, a leadership which is perceived as authentically emanating from the population, a financial base independent of the PLO and PA, and a strong religious appeal, that have enabled Hamas to endure challenges from Israel, including a mass deportation of leaders in 1992, and from the PA, according to Amira Hass, the Palestinian affairs correspondent for Haaretz. Hamas bombings, she says, are aimed not only at Israel, but also at the PA, to say its views must be taken into account.

Ephraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, has a different interpretation. "Arafat uses Hamas to bleed Israel, to wear it down."

It was only after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 that the organization took a leading role in armed activities and announced its new name, Hamas, meaning zeal.

Hamas's 1988 charter outlined its long-range goal: the establishment of an Islamic state in all of the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, and its opposition to the PLO's idea of a secular, democratic state.

The PLO's opting for self-rule, leading to what it believed would be a two-state compromise with Israel under the Oslo Agreement, was bitterly rejected by Hamas, which tried to torpedo the peace process with bombings. In 1994, after the PA arrived in Gaza City, it signalled it would tolerate no challenge to its rule. PA police shot dead 16 demonstrators after Friday prayers.

In 1996, after Israel assassinated a leading bombmaker, Yihya Ayyash, Hamas embarked on a series of suicide bombings. Arafat undertook a massive arrest campaign against Hamas.

Now there is anger over the arrests. But there is also a sense that Israel has given Arafat no inducement to inflict real damage. "The authority knows that even if it does what Israel is asking," says a young man at the Islamic University, "Sharon will give them nothing."

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