After assassinations, Hamas is down but not out

Radical Palestinian group to lie low, possibly settle on collective leadership


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The leaders of Hamas gathered under a tent at a dusty soccer stadium last Sunday, joined by thousands of mourners offering condolences for the group's slain chief in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. When the service ended, the Hamas officials vanished, making perhaps their last joint public appearance for a long time.

Israeli missile strikes that have killed two Hamas leaders in the past month have driven the surviving senior officials deep underground and raised questions about the group's ability to elude Israel's defenses and resume attacks inside Israeli cities.

While Hamas lacks a high-profile leader here and is perhaps less potent, there is a flip side. Each killing by the Israelis seems to enhance the popularity of Hamas on the street, particularly in its Gaza stronghold, where it draws recruits from a society that is extremely poor and deeply religious.

The outpouring of support during the three-day mourning period that concluded Tuesday demonstrated the broad backing that Hamas has gained. Women who were dressed in black from head to toe wrapped the emerald-green Hamas headband around their veils. Youths plastered Rantisi's "martyr poster" on every available flat surface.

The Palestinian Authority, which officially opposes Hamas' bombing campaign, was prominently represented by Gaza's police chief, Ghazi al-Jabali, who was trailed by a large entourage of policemen as he exchanged hugs with senior Hamas figures.

"Hamas may not be able to carry out a large number of attacks right now, and they have been shaken by the loss of their leaders," said Ziad Abu Amr, a moderate Palestinian legislator and a former Cabinet member who has had broad political contact with Hamas. "But this is a group that enjoys an extensive presence here. It is not easy to dismantle Hamas."

One public opinion survey released last week found that for the first time, Hamas out-polled the long dominant Fatah movement, headed by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Thirty-one percent said they would now vote for Hamas in an election, compared with 27 percent for Al Fatah. The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Research and Cultural Dialogue, surveyed 506 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and said it had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

The survey was taken after the killing March 22 of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and Hamas appeared to be riding a wave of sympathy that might not last. Still, support for Hamas has grown steadily during the three and a half years of the current Palestinian uprising.

In opening the campaign to kill Hamas leaders, Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has changed the rules of battle, and Hamas is changing the way it operates.

Hamas has carried out the greatest number of suicide bombings since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. While the bomb makers and the bombers operated from the West Bank with the utmost secrecy, Hamas' top leaders have been prominent public figures in Gaza. Yassin and Rantisi were fixtures at Hamas rallies.

The Israeli military has waged a campaign that has smashed many Hamas cells in the West Bank, but the public leaders in Gaza appeared to be off limits.

This apparent immunity abruptly ended last summer, and since then Israel has killed three senior leaders and wounded one more.

Sharon says that any Palestinian figure linked to violence could be singled out by Israel. On Friday, he said he no longer felt bound by a pledge he had made to President Bush not to harm Arafat.

Hamas has vowed to increase its attacks, but so far the opposite has happened. The group has been responsible for more than 50 suicide bombings since 2000, but the pace has slowed since last summer.

The combative Rantisi spent most of his time in hiding during the four weeks he served as Hamas' leader. On the day of his death, April 17, he made a rare visit to see his family at their modest home in a typical Gaza City neighborhood. He arrived before dawn and stayed until the evening. He was killed shortly after he left the house in his car, according to family members.

The next day Hamas said it had chosen a successor but refused to divulge his name out of concern that he would be next on Israel's hit list. In Gaza, there are rumors that the group has settled for a collective leadership, at least temporarily.

Despite the threats, the group has carried out just one suicide bombing - killing one Israeli policeman - since Yassin's death nearly five weeks ago.

If Hamas can no longer carry out regular large-scale attacks against Israel, its reputation could suffer among Palestinians, who remain largely supportive of suicide bombings. For now, many Palestinians appear patient, believing Hamas needs time to prepare for a major attack.

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