Ubiquitous Hamas has many faces, dons many masks Israelis and PLO find Palestinian group's roots tough to rip out

March 03, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Reporter Joshua Brilliant in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

GAZA -- In a leather jacket and a beard, Ghazi Ahmed Hamed looks the part of a wanted man.

He has not slept at home for three nights, expecting Palestinian police to sweep him up in their crackdown on Hamas, the militant Islamic group responsible for many suicide bombings in Israel.

"Many of our friends already are arrested," said Mr. Hamed, the editor of a now-closed Hamas newspaper, al-Watan.

He lounges in his office, a picture of bomb-maker Yehiya Ayyash taped like a pinup behind his desk. Above it is a map of Palestine pointedly lacking the state of Israel.

It was Ayyash's assassination in January, allegedly by Israel, that led to last Sunday's twin bombs in Israel, allegedly by Hamas, that led to Israel's demand for a Palestinian crackdown on the Muslim fundamentalist group.

"This is a circle," says Mr. Hamed, with a shrug of acceptance. "As long as Israel continues its policies, Hamas will continue its armed struggle."

Israel has demanded that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority adopt an iron-fist policy against Hamas. Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres, were indignant last week that the crackdown has not been swifter and tougher after the bombings, which killed 27.

Mr. Arafat was brusquely summoned to meet the Israeli Army chief Amnon Shahak and given orders for the crackdown, blunt treatment of the Palestinian leader that left Mr. Arafat fuming.

Israel also dismissed a public offer by Hamas of a cease-fire against civilians if Israel meets certain conditions by March 8.

Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would not negotiate with the group because Mr. Arafat must deal with Hamas.

"They have to do the work," Mr. Barak said Friday.

Hamas, formed in 1988 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, now in an Israeli prison, is said to have a small number of active members.

But it regularly attracts support of 10 percent to 20 percent of the Palestinians for its goals of an Islamic Palestine and the extinction of the Jewish state.

Israel has demanded that the Palestinian authority arrest members of the military arm of Hamas, detain its leaders, collect all its weapons, outlaw the organization and dismantle the Hamas "infrastructure."

That's not so easily accomplished. Israel failed to demolish Hamas during its occupation. But Israel believes that the Palestinian authority, with more than 2,500 security police, can find and stop the Hamas leaders.

"We know their names, and they know their names," complained Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal. Mr. Arafat "is not doing anything to eradicate the foundation of the leadership."

Israel says Mr. Arafat's security agents arrest the radicals only when they get specific information about a planned bombing.

Nasser Yusef, head of the Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip, said Thursday that more than 150 suspected Hamas members had been arrested after Sunday's bombings in Israel.

"Nobody can say that we didn't perform our part. However, we have to intensify our efforts," he acknowledged.

Orders have been given for all Palestinians to surrender "unlicensed" weapons, though similar orders have been given in the past with little effect.

Palestinian police have arrested activists and have periodically closed down the Islamic Jihad newspaper al-Watan, which is not publishing now.

Mr. Hamed, who spent five years in Israeli jails, said he has been arrested by Palestinian police "about three times. Sometimes they catch me; sometimes I get away."

Not a simple creature

But the effort "is not fast enough for us," said an Israeli security official, insisting on anonymity. "Arafat wants to achieve his goals with nonviolent means, but this doesn't always work."

The group they're after is not a simple creature, with only the face of violence.

Like Islamic movements in many other Arab countries, Hamas also has political and social functions with popular support and little or no connection with the secretive bomb-makers.

The violent faction, which usually operates under the name Iz a-din al-Qassam, has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest terrorist acts.

To try to wreck the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas has dispatched at least 14 suicide bombers in the last two years, killing 102 Israelis.

But Hamas also operates kindergartens and schools, supports mosques, hospitals, a university and popular charities such as those for the families of Palestinians killed in the intifada, or uprising, between 1987 and 1994.

As much as 95 percent of Hamas' activities and its estimated $60 million budget go into these civilian services, and only 5 percent to the military wing, says a senior Israeli military intelligence officer who declines to be named.

Public support for Hamas

Those services gain public support for Hamas, and provide the "infrastructure" that cannot be easily dismantled, the officer says.

"You can't close the Hamas schools without having some substitute, or you will put children out on the streets, and there will be 100,000 terrorists," he says.

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