Gaza mosques offer spiritual home to terrorists

January 30, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- The empty shoes slowly filled the rack beside the door of the mosque, then spilled down the steps as more men went barefoot into the prayer service.

"Allahu akbar" -- God is great. There is no God but one God," sang the imam -- the preacher -- as 1,000 men knelt. On the wall to their right, posters lauded last week's suicide bombing that killed 21 Israelis.

The men faced Mecca for their prayer, as always, but the people most interested in activities inside the mosque were in Israel and the United States.

This is the Palestine Mosque, the largest in the Gaza Strip, and an acknowledged spiritual center for Muslim fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

President Clinton ordered a freeze last week on whatever U.S. assets can be found for Muslim extremist groups. And Israel promised an escalation of its crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists after the bombing, carried out by two members of Islamic Jihad.

"Islamic fundamentalism" has become the new international XTC scare-word, the communism of the 1990s -- the bearded terrorists who inspire fear from bus stops in Israel to the New York World Trade Center.

Hamas, the largest of the Palestinian Islamic groups, is seen as thegreatest threat to the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan signed in 1993. It has claimed credit for a series of suicide bombs that has shaken Israel's desire to pursue peace, weakened support for the fledgling Palestinian Authority and diminished the standing of the authority's leader, Yasser Arafat.

Israel says the mosques are pulpits for the Muslim extremists. Those at the Palestine Mosque do not hide their politics.

"Probably 90 percent of the men here are supporters or members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad," shrugged the imam, Sayed Siam.

The men sat silently as he warmed to his sermon Friday, the Muslims' weekly holy day. "Thank God for the martyrs," a poster proclaimed. Its backdrop was a comic-book warrior in Islamic dress clutching knives, an ax and an automatic rifle.

Imam Siam is a teacher in an elementary school, a polite man with gray hair at age 36 and a wife and six children. He has the usual credentials for a Palestinian activist: jailed four times by the Israelis, served two years, deported once to southern Lebanon.

"I wanted to talk to you this morning about Ramadan" -- the coming Muslim holy month, he told the congregation. But there was a more pressing matter, he said. Mr. Arafat, the chairman of the secular Palestinian Authority, had criticized the Islamic groups on television.

"God will punish me if I don't make the facts clear to you," Imam Siam said.

The big hall before him was full. A few women scampered up to their segregated area, hidden from sight on the second floor. Worshipers arriving late lined up in the dusty lot outside the white, three-story mosque. The imam's words crackled out to them from loudspeakers mounted on a slender minaret.

A handicapped imam, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, formed Hamas at the start of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 1987. It arose from the caldron of the Muslim Brotherhood, a loose-knit Islamic political group founded in the 1920s.

Israel, more concerned with Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization, tacitly encouraged Hamas in the late 1980s, along with a smaller offshoot organization called Islamic Jihad, hoping to splinter the Palestinians.

With lessons learned in other Arab countries, Hamas laid a base for popular support among social institutions. It opened schools, started welfare organizations, built mosques and sponsored sports programs.

Now, with a solid base of support variously estimated at 20 percent to 35 percent of Gaza's population, the Islamic groups have launched their most violent challenge to the reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

"The Islamic Movement should be proud of what we have done with the young people here," Imam Siam preached to the crowd. "We have kept them from succumbing to the Israeli secret police. We recruited so many young people to be faithful fighters against the occupations, to believe deeply in jihad" -- holy war.

He spoke with an amplifier that bounced his words off the plain concrete walls. Imam Siam sought to prove the truth of his words with the strength of his voice. As he warmed to his subject, he began to shout.

"The Islamic Movement succeeded in kidnapping more than 10 Israeli soldiers, soldiers who had guns, uniforms and excellent training. Tell me, what other Palestinian faction succeeded in doing that?" he asked.

"The Islamic movement made Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, say that he hoped he would wake up and find the Gaza Strip swallowed by the sea. What made the criminal Rabin say that? It was the willingness of our fighters to embrace martyrhood."

The imam was bordering on hoarseness now. His listeners sat in silence.

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