Did Arafat give Hamas 'green light' on renewed terrorism? Leader's relationship with extremists debated in wake of bombing

March 23, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BUREIJ, Gaza Strip -- After his release from a Palestinian authority prison two weeks ago, Ibrahim al-Makadmeh received a hero's welcome.

Bus loads of supporters arrived at Makadmeh's family home to celebrate the release of the 44-year-old dentist identified by Israeli and Palestinian officials as a key figure in the military wing of the Islamic resistance movement known as Hamas.

Shortly after a deadly terrorist bomb exploded in a Tel Aviv cafe Friday, Makadmeh told a Hamas rally that only suicide bombers could stop Israel's settlement policy.

Yesterday, in the wake of accusations by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Makadmeh's prison release March 10 showed that the Palestinian authority had given terrorists a "green light," Palestinian security forces rearrested Makadmeh.

Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian autonomous areas, denies Netanyahu's accusation, but the terror attack and other recent incidents raise anew questions about Arafat's relationship with Hamas and other groups that oppose the 1993 peace accords with Israel.

The Palestinian authority had cracked down on Hamas and other terrorist groups in the wake of suicide bombings last year. The attacks had undermined the peace process and, in turn, Arafat's pursuit of an independent Palestinian state.

The authority rounded up hundreds of Hamas members and jailed them. Many remained in prison for months without being charged. The authority took over some of their mosques and deposed their clerics. Arafat co-opted some of their leaders.

"Arafat came to realize in the wake of the previous bombings that Hamas, inasmuch it endangers the Israeli government, endangers him," said Martin Kramer, a terrorism expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. "Measures were taken to put Hamas in its place. And I think they were effective."

Hamas reined in

The harsh treatment dealt a severe blow to the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al Qassam, according to Middle East analysts. Because Hamas is a decentralized group whose members often work in cells of five or six, the jailing of leaders and sympathizers froze its activities.

Tough sanctions by Israel also undermined the group's relationship with Palestinians -- for example, the closure that kept Palestinians from entering Israel for work caused great hardship.

Hamas' popularity suffered, despite its extensive network of social programs.

But with the election of Netanyahu, relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians stiffened. The Palestinians had a tougher time getting aspects of the peace accords implemented. And the level of frustration steadily increased in the face of Netanyahu's hard-line policies on expansion of settlements, the future of Jerusalem and other issues.

Seeking a unified front

Arafat met last month with Hamas representatives and opposition groups in an attempt to broker a unified front in the face of Israel's toughened stance. Hamas, which boycotted the Palestinian elections of last year, had previously said it planned to form a political group, according to Mahmoud Zahar, a spokesman in Gaza.

At a second meeting with opposition leaders, according to reports in the Israeli media, Arafat allegedly gave the go-ahead for terrorist acts to resume because diplomatic efforts to stop a new Israeli neighborhood in Jerusalem had failed.

Then the Palestinian authority released Makadmeh and, a spokesman said, "a few" other Hamas members; the Israelis claim that "tens" of terrorist suspects were freed.

Israeli security officials and the prime minister's office began warning of the potential for violence similar to the clashes last fall in which 79 people died. And the prime minister began talking about Arafat's having given a "green light" for terrorism.

Despite that, analysts discount the idea that Arafat would encourage a group such as Hamas.

"If Arafat is going to encourage a confrontationist position or seek to stir things up on one front or another, he is going to want to have absolute control. He would not do it through the instrument of Hamas," said Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian academic and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

"There are others who are more answerable and immediately responsible," Amr said.

"If Arafat is to blame, Arafat is the one who prevented terror for a year," said Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister.

Arafat's role doubted

Meir Litvik, a specialist on Palestinian politics at the Dayan center, also doubts that Arafat would call Hamas into action.

He would not "delegate authority to an oppositional group that would undermine his own authority," said Litvik.

Arafat "knows this is political jargon. It's meant to pressure" him, Litvik said.

To unleash terrorist attacks would jeopardize Israel's security and in turn Arafat's, said Abu Amr, the Palestinian legislator. "He knows his security is very dependent on Israeli security."

But Arafat may have learned something from last fall's clashes, he said. "There may be something to walking on the narrow line and testing Israel."

Demonstrations can get out of hand, and a fiery speech by the likes of Ibrahim al-Makadmeh could have emboldened one young Palestinian.

Palestinian security officials insisted that Makadmeh was rearrested not to appease Israel in the aftermath of the suicide bomb. The arrest stemmed from statements Makadmeh made against the authority, a spokesman said.

But Makadmeh, who refers to himself as a Hamas adviser, told a Gaza newspaper last week that the military wing of Hamas does not want to overthrow the Palestinian authority.

"We told our interrogators," said Makadmeh, who was jailed for a year, "that our plans were not against the authority but against the Israelis."

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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