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Ready to Kill, Ready to Die, Hamas Zealots Thwart Peace : Mideast: Both PLO, Israel are threatened as militant Islamic group creates new ‘martyrs’ in deadly attacks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cradling a Galil assault rifle, Saleh Abdel-Rahim Hassan Souwi looked straight at the home video camera and calmly announced his intention to kill himself--and as many Israelis as he could.

“We (are) left with no alternative or choice but to make the entire Jewish people a captive of fear and terror,” Souwi said, committing himself to the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus last week that killed 23 people, including himself.

“If our humane demands are not met, we will continue our heroic missions, for there are many young men who love jihad (Islam’s holy war) and would love to die for the sake of God.”

His testament recorded, the 27-year-old former baker and construction worker, regarded by his friends as shy and quiet, headed for Tel Aviv and boarded a bus filled with Israelis on their way to work. On reaching the city’s commercial center, he detonated an estimated 45 pounds of dynamite in an explosion so strong that it lifted the bus about five feet off the street.

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Souwi was the latest “martyr” of the Iziddin al-Qassam, the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, but almost certainly not the last as the group fills its ranks with other zealots ready to die in the struggle against the Jewish state.

With ready-to-kill, ready-to-die commitments, Hamas’ adamant opposition to any Arab compromise with Israel makes it the gravest threat today to Middle East peacemaking. Its attacks on civilian and military targets alike raise the question among Israelis of whether peace with the Palestinians will bring security--or whether it is even possible.

In a terrifying escalation of that struggle, Hamas’ military wing has struck three times this month in the heart of Israel.

On the evening of Oct. 9, Hamas gunmen opened fire on cafe-goers in the heart of Jerusalem. That same night, other Iziddin al-Qassam guerrillas kidnaped a 19-year-old Israeli soldier. They killed him during an Israeli rescue attempt five days later. On Wednesday, Souwi blew up the No. 5 bus in central Tel Aviv.

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“In my opinion, there will be more attacks,” Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, chief of staff of the Israeli military, warned last week. “I don’t want us to delude ourselves. We are in a very long struggle. The enemy is tough and persistent.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has ordered Israeli security forces to broaden their sweep of the Palestinian territories for Hamas leaders and to break up the support network for the Iziddin al-Qassam units. More than 60 arrests have already been made, Israeli sources said, and the campaign will continue until the guerrillas are caught or killed.

“They may be fanatics, but we can be just as tenacious in hunting them down,” a Rabin aide said Monday. “For us, they are a threat not only to our people but to our hopes to live in peace with our neighbors. We will not allow that, and we will take whatever--I say whatever--measures are required to eliminate the threat from Hamas.”

Hamas vowed to retaliate against the Israeli moves, particularly a widely reported, although officially denied, order by Rabin to shoot the movement’s leaders on sight.

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“Rabin must know that Hamas loves death more than Rabin and his soldiers love life,” Hamas declared in a statement Monday. “Rabin’s threats will only push us into continuing our resistance and struggle.”

In Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher backed the Israeli crackdown and promised U.S. efforts to cut off private American support for Hamas, including fund raising for its charities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“We will do everything we can--and seek legislation where necessary--to ensure that Hamas and other terrorists do not get support from inside the United States,” Christopher said on the eve of President Clinton’s trip to the Middle East. “If peace brings nothing but more terror, the process of reconciliation surely will not succeed.”

Hamas is no less a threat to the Palestine Liberation Organization and its hope of proceeding from the 1993 agreement with Israel on limited self-government to an accord on full statehood. Not only does Hamas oppose autonomy as a half-measure betraying Palestinian interests, it also wants an Islamic state under its leadership rather than the democratic, secular state advocated by the PLO.

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“Iziddin al-Qassam’s answer will be to make Gaza burn,” Hamas warned PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after Palestinian police rounded up 400 of its supporters in an effort to halt the attacks on Israelis. “Hamas doesn’t allow any faction to lay a finger on its followers.”

There have been suggestions that Israel try to pull Hamas into the peace process and encourage the PLO to develop its political ties with Hamas.

“The Hamas organization is an organization . . . that uses the cruelest terror,” Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said over the weekend. “But within it there are certainly those who are less extreme, and if those want to enter into a relevant discussion with us, I am not sure it’s our job to say . . . it’s forbidden for us to talk to them.”

David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and retired director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, went further, calling for “a relentless war on terrorism” but also for discussions with Hamas’ political leaders.

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“We have to live in peace together with Islam,” Kimche said. “Islam is a religion of peace--absolutely no question about it. We live in a sea of Islam, and we need to come to terms with it.”

Several Hamas leaders were also reaching out, differentiating between Hamas’ community work and Iziddin al-Qassam’s military actions, and suggesting that Israel and Hamas agree not to attack civilians.

“Things are happening within Hamas,” Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo said, “and the more moderate leaders, who favor a political solution, perhaps are being challenged through these military operations by those who fear they have gone soft.”

Hamas does show signs of new divisions within its ranks--a split between the political leadership, which has been considering whether to compete in Palestinian national elections next year, and radicals in the military wing, which rejects all compromises and uses the terrorist attacks in an effort to make them impossible.

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“Each military operation steels our people’s will, for they see our power, our raw power, and understand that concessions to the Israelis are not needed,” a Hamas journalist in the West Bank city of Hebron said in support of the radicals. “One man like Saleh al-Souwi carrying the war to the very center of Israel is like a full-division assault.”

Souwi’s motivation for one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Israeli history was not hard to find.

The eldest of nine children from a poor Palestinian family, Souwi was born the year Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, and he grew up under an occupation that fostered, rather than suppressed, Palestinian nationalism.

A younger brother, 14-year-old Hussein, was shot in the neck and killed by Israeli soldiers in September, 1989, during one of the many protests against the occupation in Qalqiliya, a militant town in the northern West Bank.

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Arrested six times during the intifada , the rebellion begun in 1987 against the Israeli occupation, Saleh Souwi had been detained twice without charge for six months and had been on the run for nearly a year from Israeli security police.

The most important factor, however, was probably his education in a school affiliated with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which gave birth to Hamas.

Formed at the start of the intifada in December, 1987, Hamas was the initiative of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a charismatic Islamic leader in the Gaza Strip.

“The Muslim Brotherhood had sat on the sidelines for too long with its philosophy that Palestinian society had to become fully Islamic before it could succeed in the struggle against Israel,” said Ziad abu Amr, a political scientist at Birzeit University.

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“Hamas was an effort to ensure an Islamic role in the leadership, identity and future of the Palestinian nation. If Hamas succeeded, the Brotherhood could claim it as a wing. If it failed, the Brotherhood could shrug it off. But in seven years, Hamas has actually eclipsed its parent.”

In its seven years, Hamas has effectively merged the Palestinians’ nationalism with Islamic zeal in a culture of struggle that honors a glorious death and rejects as sinful the compromises necessary for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Hamas linked its recent attacks to Israel’s refusal to release 5,000 Palestinian prisoners and to the slayings by a Jewish settler of about 30 Muslims in a West Bank mosque in February, it is committed to a broad fight against Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.

“As long as the Israeli occupation continues, resistance will and must continue until the Palestinian people gain their rights,” Sheik Ahmed Bahar, a lecturer at Islamic University in the Gaza Strip and a Hamas leader, said last week. “The Islamic movement did not sign this agreement with Israel, and we are not bound by it.”

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Hamas also has long-term goals of turning a future Palestine into an Islamic state that in time would supplant Israel completely and then help forge a single, giant, Pan-Islamic nation across the Middle East and beyond.

“Our struggle is not for today or even tomorrow, though we do what we can,” said Mahmoud Zahhar, a Gaza surgeon and senior Hamas leader. “Our focus is really on the future of the Arab and Islamic people, and for that we are ready to make very great sacrifices, including our lives.”

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At its outset, Hamas enjoyed a measure of Israeli support. Rabin, then defense minister, saw Hamas and its predecessor, the Islamic Center in Gaza City, as a counterweight to the PLO in the Gaza Strip, allowed the establishment of its network of community and charitable organizations and even met with Hamas leaders to ascertain their views.

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Rabin was “very, very cordial,” Zahhar recalled with a smile.

“Israel did not act against these (organizations), did not understand that social Islam would by necessity become political Islam,” said Raphael Israeli, a prominent Israeli specialist on Islam.

As the intifada grew, Hamas was outlawed, and Yassin was jailed on charges of ordering the killing of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian collaborators. His release is a principal Hamas demand.

Hamas nevertheless stepped up its military activities, and after a series of deadly attacks, Rabin deported 415 supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another radical group, to southern Lebanon in December, 1992.

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That still-controversial action appears to have strengthened Hamas considerably. The deportees’ tent camp became a strategic planning center for the movement and a training institute.

When the deportees returned, they were able both to criticize the accord that Israel signed with the PLO on limited self-government for the Palestinian territories and to enjoy the freedom that this autonomy gave them.

Martyrdom in the battle with Israel is popular not only among the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip’s fetid refugee camps but also increasingly in the towns of the West Bank as Hamas gains popular support.

The guerrillas of Iziddin al-Qassam are lionized in songs and epic poems. Videos of the exploits and last testaments of the “martyrs” circulate like the latest Hollywood movies. Street vendors sell portraits of the young men, and parents name their children after the latest to die.

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Shrines to the Iziddin al-Qassam dead in the mosques, schools and other institutions affiliated with Hamas further portray them as being highly religious, good students, athletes and devoted to their families and communities--sons who make their mothers even prouder with their deaths.

The word Hamas itself is an acronym meaning “zeal” in Arabic.

“Imad Akel opens his jaws to strike. The Nazi enemy is on guard,” goes a song by the Jabaliya Martyrs Band, referring to the 24-year-old guerrilla commander who killed 12 Israeli soldiers before being killed himself in November. “The commandos kidnap (Israeli) soldiers and kill them, kill them, kill them, kill them.”

Young men are recruited as members of Hamas from its network of mosques, schools, clubs and welfare institutions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

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A soccer coach, for example, explained how his players, 10 to 15 years old, practice Sunday through Thursday on a Gaza City field and go to the mosque for religious instruction and political training Friday and Saturday.

“We develop our future moujahedeen with great care,” Zahhar said, “for this will be a long struggle, a struggle we will hand from generation to generation until Islam triumphs.”

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Boys who show promise are assigned a Hamas spiritual guide, known as an emir, who oversees their religious and political development, arranges training in martial arts and later in guerrilla warfare and readies them for eventual assignment to one of the Iziddin al-Qassam units, according to Hamas sources.

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Only the best, chosen on the basis of character evaluations stressing discipline, discretion and dedication, are actually promoted, according to these sources. And only the best of these join the Iziddin al-Qassam.

Hamas certainly has no more than 200 members in its military wing, according to Israeli security sources, and perhaps as few as 50. Grouped in small cells of three to five and in a few larger units of up to 15, they operate independently of the main Hamas organization with instructions from a leadership believed to be based partly in the Gaza Strip and partly in Jordan.

Each Hamas attack is designed to send specific messages both to Israelis and to Palestinians, according to Hamas members. “We want to build up our people’s morale and will to resist as much as we want to hurt the enemy’s,” a Hamas leader said in Jerusalem.

Supporting Iziddin al-Qassam units are what Israeli security sources describe as “circles” of Hamas members willing to rent cars, find apartments, provide food and give money to the guerrillas while remaining outside the military wing.

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“They have a queue of recruits ready to replace any Qassam member we capture or kill,” a senior Israeli officer said. “There is a brilliance in their organization because by minimizing their (military) structures they minimize their exposure to infiltration. When they lose someone, he is quickly replaced. Each death draws more recruits than they can absorb.”

Hamas’ overall structure also includes branches for political work, for propaganda, for security and for its extensive community organizations--including medical clinics, youth clubs, athletic teams, kindergartens, libraries and schools--whose activities are the foundation of its popular support.

Its leaders--sheiks and imams, doctors and university professors, a few businessmen--are widely admired for leading exemplary Muslim lives in contrast to what Palestinians scathingly call “our imported deluxe leadership,” a reference to the PLO cadres who returned from exile with a taste for luxury.

Hamas has developed major centers not only in the Gaza Strip but also in Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

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Abroad, it has representatives in Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Sudan, according to Israeli military sources. It raises substantial funds--as much as $30 million a month--in Saudi Arabia, conservative Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Britain and the United States, as well as in the Palestinian territories.

Even some who back the agreement on Palestinian self-government and profess support for the secular nationalism of the PLO acknowledge their respect for the strength of Hamas’ commitment.

“Hamas is still there fighting for our rights, and that is important,” said Yousef Sartawi, 44, a Gaza accountant who lives in the Jabaliya refugee camp. “The PLO is now the government and cannot carry on the armed struggle while building our state.

“I am for peace with Israel, but for a full peace--with the Jewish settlers all gone, with the Israeli army all gone and with our country fully independent. Only then should Qassam’s men put down their guns.”

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Opinion surveys conducted by the Palestinian Studies Center in Nablus over the past year show that direct support for Hamas is about 15% but reaches 20% to 25% in the Gaza Strip. Fatah, the PLO’s main component, generally gets about 40% in the surveys. Hamas leaders put their support at 45% in Gaza and 40% overall.

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, Hamas has been gingerly enlarging its role, discussing the establishment of a political party and the terms under which it would contest elections.

But Iziddin al-Qassam’s continued attacks on Israeli targets have strained relations with the PLO.

“The Islamic movement wants to ensure Palestinian unity above all else,” Bahar said. “We will avoid anything that threatens bloodshed among our people. We hope that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority will do the same, but the latest arrests made things very difficult and have showed people that the authority is simply Israel’s agent in continuing the occupation.”

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Palestinian officials say they want to reach an understanding with Hamas so that self-rule and eventual independence are not jeopardized by its military operations.

“There is no value to peace with Israel if the Palestinian people lose their brotherhood and peace among themselves,” said Sufian abu Zaideh, a Fatah leader and a senior official in the authority. “But Hamas must also realize that it is part of the Palestinian nation and cannot put the gains of everyone at risk.

“The equation is a very tough one. Hamas needs military operations for its popularity, but if successful, these bring the Palestinian Authority into confrontation with Israel and then the authority into confrontation with Hamas.

“We think the best approach is to extend the autonomy area throughout the whole West Bank and hold elections,” he said, “so that we and Hamas can ask the people what they think of the peace agreement. We are pretty confident that while many people support Hamas, many more will support us. But we need elections to see.”

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