At a university, sympathy for Hamas

Restive students feel a call to arms from the Islamic militant group

February 24, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NABLUS, West Bank -- The crowded Al Najah University on the steep slopes of this West Bank city is prime recruiting territory for the Islamic resistance group Hamas and may have been home to terrorists plotting a major bombing in Jerusalem, Israeli authorities say.

Authorities broke up this week a 60-member cell responsible for two pipe-bomb explosions in the Mediterranean coast city of Netanya and one in Hadera, in addition to a plot to blow up a building in Jerusalem, along the lines of the apartment bombings that Chechen terrorists are accused of carrying out in Russia.

Most of the cell's members study at Al Najah and at Hebron University, the Israeli army said.

The arrests, by the Israelis at checkpoints and by Palestinian authorities in the area they control, have jolted this proud, 10,000-student university, where a building program has raised an array of pale stone classroom and laboratory buildings around graceful plazas that fill with young people between classes.

"We think what was in the newspaper is bigger than what's happened," said former student council leader Mohammed Khader. He is a member of the Islamic bloc, which controls the student council and is dominated by Hamas.

"Because the security authorities don't know anything about what happened," Khader said, "they want to prove the Islamic bloc is terrorist and make the students think we're doing something wrong in the university."

Tawfiq Kashou, 21, was among the students arrested but was released after being held for 96 hours and repeatedly questioned at an Israeli military camp in the West Bank.

Three months away from a bachelor's degree, he said he was threatened with being unable to complete his studies if he refused to cooperate. "They asked if I had a relationship with Hamas or the Islamic bloc," he said. They let him go, he said, "because I didn't know anything."

Israeli security officials say Al Najah and other universities are major organizing centers for terrorists. They want the Palestinian Authority to increase surveillance of student organizations.

If the authorities are right about the Jerusalem plot, it shows that despite the absence of a single lethal act of terrorism against Israelis over the past year, Hamas' military wing, the Izz el-Din al-Qassem Brigade, hasn't stopped trying.

Experts have said the movement is split between its moderate Gaza-based leadership, headed by the ascetic, paralyzed cleric Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and the more violence-prone leadership in exile, which was expelled by Jordan late last year.

Both wings oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a sellout of Palestinian rights.

Support for Hamas among students is strong, despite its weak popularity among Palestinians as a whole.

According to surveys by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, Hamas draws support from about 12 percent of the population, compared with the more than 50 percent backing for Al Fatah, the mainstream party of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But among students, the picture is different, possibly giving the movement growth potential.

"Those who are young and educated tend to be more supportive of Hamas," said Khalil Shikaki, projects director at the Palestinian Center.

Students are also more likely to be attracted by violence, he adds.

"They're more likely to see more of a threat from Israelis, from land confiscation and from violence against Palestinians," Shikaki said. As a result, a university is "likely to be the place where they will find people who would also be willing to work in the military wing."

Even student activists who oppose Hamas politically understand why other students are drawn to the movement.

"When there is progress in the peace process, Fatah will be winning," said Kanar al-Qadi, 21, a student politician who belongs to Fatah. "The Islamic bloc will win when students are feeling frustration and are depressed because of [negative] signs the Israelis are showing."

Such a time appears to be now. Not only is the peace process moribund, resisting the efforts of U.S. envoy Dennis Ross to get it back on track, but Palestinians are furious about the continued growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank under the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"Israel talks peace and security and is building new settlements instead of talking withdrawal," Qadi said. "We're not seeing any results of true negotiations."

Such voices of frustration -- even aside from terrorist plots -- are beginning to cause concern among the Israeli military, which is bracing for increased Palestinian unrest if the peace process continues to falter.

A senior Israeli military official who briefed reporters Tuesday remarked: "The situation might be very different in a few months unless we find a way to do better than what we have done so far."

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