Palestinians Detain Hamas Leader
Palestinian police detained the most prominent Hamas political leader in Gaza City on Thursday amid growing tensions between Yasser Arafat’s government and his Islamic opposition over the recent killing of the chief Hamas bomb maker.
Abdulaziz Rantisi’s arrest appeared to be part of a Palestinian Authority crackdown on Hamas to try to prevent the group from carrying out its threats to avenge the death of the bomb maker with attacks on Israel and Jews around the world.
Scores of Hamas activists in the West Bank also have been rounded up since the body of Mohiedin Sharif was discovered late last month next to an exploded car in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank city of Ramallah. Palestinian officials announced that Sharif was killed in a Hamas power struggle and that five of six people involved in the killing were in custody.
Rantisi was detained at his home after he gave an interview to an Israeli radio station in which he accused the Palestinian Authority of fabricating evidence and extracting confessions by torture to falsely charge Hamas with the killing. He demanded that the official Palestinian investigating committee be put on trial.
Ghazi Jabali, chief of Palestinian civil police in the Gaza Strip, said Rantisi is being held at a Gaza City police station for questioning about his statements against the Palestinian Authority. “He is summoned when he violates the law. He is not from Hong Kong or Guatemala. He is from Palestine and he lives in Gaza and must obey the law,” Jabali said.
He did not say if Rantisi had been formally charged or when he might be released. Arafat spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh suggested that the detention might be long. “This time we are dealing with them in a very different way,” Abu Rudaineh said. “If it’s necessary, he’ll stay for life.”
With Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, out of the country, Rantisi is the most visible of the movement’s leaders in the Gaza Strip. He was one of 415 Palestinians whom Israel deported to Lebanon in 1992 after a Hamas bombing in Tel Aviv. Under international pressure, the group returned a year later, but Rantisi was jailed by the Israelis for being a Hamas militant. He was released early last year.
Hamas has blamed Israel for Sharif’s death and said it holds Arafat’s government at least indirectly responsible. Hamas issued a leaflet Wednesday calling on Arabs and Muslims to attack Jewish targets around the world in revenge.
The group also released a videotape of a masked man who identified himself as Adel Awadallah, a member of the militant Izzidin al-Qassam wing who is reported to be a suspect in Sharif’s death. He indirectly accused Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinians’ West Bank security chief, of killing Sharif because of a “personal vendetta” against the bomb maker.
“Regardless of whether we have proof of direct or indirect involvement of members of the Authority . . . the response will only be against the Zionist enemy,” said the man with a checkered kaffiyeh wrapped around his face. “We are going to put sadness and fear in every Zionist house.”
The Palestinians closed the Reuters news agency’s Gaza bureau for distributing the video and called in its local reporter for questioning, Israel Radio reported today.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that another Hamas terrorist attack will halt efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and prevent the hand-over by Israel of any more West Bank land to Arafat’s control.
From the beginning, Hamas has opposed the 1993 Oslo peace accord as a Palestinian sellout to the Israelis, and its suicide bombers have killed scores of Israelis in an effort to torpedo the negotiations.
Hamas is an Islamic social movement that has earned a broad base of support among poor Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through its charity work. It has both a political wing that operates openly and clandestine Izzidin al-Qassam brigades.
Political leaders insist that they are independent of the military wing, and Arafat has been reluctant to clamp down on them, fearing a backlash among Palestinians who see few tangible results from the 4 1/2-year peace process. He has tried, instead, to co-opt Hamas leaders into the political system he heads.
But the Israelis and Americans have accused Arafat of being too soft on Hamas. The only time he launched a sweep was after a wave of suicide bombings in 1996 that left dozens of Israelis dead in just over a week and brought a halt to the peace process under the Labor Party-led government that had started it. In that case, Arafat rounded up hundreds of Hamas activists, including political leaders.
Times special correspondent Fayed Abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.