As the Clinton Administration launches a major effort to crack down on the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, government analysts have issued a grim warning: In the short run, there isn't much the United States or Israel can do.
Hamas, they say, is an unusually well-run terrorist group--rooted in a solid political base among young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, organized with the strictest discipline and security and sparing in its use of money and explosives.
The Islamic fundamentalist group has declared its goal to be torpedoing the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It demonstrated its terrorist prowess last month first by kidnaping an Israeli soldier and then--in the midst of a security crackdown--by putting a suicide bomber aboard a bus in the heart of Tel Aviv, killing 22 people.
President Clinton, denouncing the group as an enemy of peace, directed his Cabinet to find ways that the United States could help quash Hamas' terrorism, and a task force drawn from nine federal agencies was put to work on the issue.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the Administration will propose new legislation to curtail U.S. fund raising or other action in support of Hamas if the Justice Department can square the restrictions with the Constitution's protection of political activity.
"I think there are things that can be done here, and that legislation will be pursued" if it becomes clear that Hamas is raising money in the United States for terrorism, Christopher told Times reporters and editors Wednesday.
Federal officials said that as much as 30% of Hamas' funding passes through the United States, much of it raised from sympathizers in such cities as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Other sources of funding for the organization include Iran, wealthy Arabs in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states and the populations of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the PLO-ruled Gaza Strip.
But even if that money was cut off, officials said, there might be little immediate effect--for most of the funds go not to terrorism but to educational, medical and welfare organizations that serve Hamas' political base.
"Their terrorism is pretty low-budget stuff," one official said. "Money is not an issue. Finding their source of finance and cutting it off won't stop them."
Moreover, another official said, Hamas is "extremely independent . . . (and) doesn't have to rely on any one state sponsor" for its funding.
In the short run, these officials said, the only way to disrupt Hamas' terrorist operations will be for Israel and Yasser Arafat's PLO to work together to hunt down the movement's military leadership.
And in the long run, they insisted, the only way to stop the terrorism is to implement a peace settlement that gives the Palestinians a bigger stake in law and order--as the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin already is doing.
"They realize that that would be granting a victory to the terrorists if they were to give up the search for peace because of a terrorist incident," Christopher said.
A large part of the difficulty in suppressing Hamas' attacks comes from the nature of the group, officials said. Hamas is a broad-based political organization of Islamic fundamentalists with thousands of supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It operates schools, clinics and social welfare programs.
The terrorist attacks in Hamas' name, by contrast, are carried out by small, tightly disciplined cells that answer to a clandestine leadership that Israeli security agencies have failed to reach, officials said.
"They are operationally secure. Finding one cell and cracking down on it won't stop the others," one official said.
Moreover, unlike other terrorist organizations, Hamas has restricted its attacks to targets inside Israeli-controlled territory and has never carried out an action outside the Middle East, officials noted.
U.S. and Israeli counterterrorism officials have conducted an increasingly vocal debate over what part Hamas supporters in the United States play in the organization's terrorist actions. Israeli officials have charged that the group's top leadership and main fund raising--even its terrorist training camps--are centered in the United States. U.S. officials have said heatedly that they have investigated the charges and do not believe they are true.
The officials acknowledged that the FBI has found evidence of significant Hamas fund raising in the United States, but they said the government has been unable to make a case that any of the money is going specifically for terrorism.
The Administration's plans to crack down on Hamas fund raising are worrying U.S. Arab and Muslim groups, which fear that the upsurge in terrorism could result in a backlash against their peaceful activities. Leaders of six Arab American and Muslim American groups met with State Department officials Wednesday to discuss the issue.
"We welcome any legal investigation of Hamas activities," said Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, a participant. "But we object to anything that would make Muslims in the United States the scapegoats in a conflict between Hamas and the Israeli authorities.
"If law enforcement is going to be looking at people . . . it should look at Irish Americans, Jewish Americans and even African Americans who have supported the African National Congress (in South Africa)."