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Despite Hamas Arrests, Israel Still On Guard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite a Palestinian police roundup of leaders of the opposition Islamic movement Hamas, Israel remained on high alert Sunday, amid fears that the arrests have given the group’s military wing new incentive to attack the Jewish state.

“Hamas is in a struggle with the Palestinian Authority, and when they want to score against the Palestinian Authority, they hit Israel,” said Ziad abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and an expert on the Islamic opposition.

Any attack on Israel inevitably provokes an Israeli backlash against Yasser Arafat’s self-rule government, and, said Abu Amr, “If they attack Israel, they kill two birds with one stone.”

The alert was issued during the Passover holiday after tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas broke into the open last week over the killing of the group’s top bomb maker, Mohiedin Sharif, whose body was discovered next to an exploded car March 29 in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

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Palestinian officials announced last Monday that their official investigation showed that Sharif was shot to death in an internal Hamas power struggle and that his cohorts tried to cover up the killing with the explosion.

Hamas slammed the official version and said the Palestinian Authority was at least indirectly responsible for the killing, in collaboration with Israel. Hamas political leaders demanded that members of the investigating team be put on trial, while the Hamas military wing threatened to take revenge in Israel and against Israeli targets around the world.

Arafat’s government then pulled in key Hamas political leaders and dozens of mid-level activists, as well as the man who they claim shot Sharif, Imad Awadallah.

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Political analysts offer a number of reasons for Arafat’s decision to rein in Hamas, which has opposed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from its inception in 1993. First, they say, Arafat does not tolerate open challenges to his authority and to the credibility of his government. Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi, who had called the government investigation “lies,” was one of the first to be detained in Gaza City.

Palestinian police also arrested Ibrahim Makadmeh, another senior Hamas leader--long on Israel’s most-wanted list--who had not said anything publicly about Sharif’s death. Makadmeh, still a strong advocate of armed struggle against Israel, is thought to be highly respected by Hamas’ militant base.

“It is possible that he [Makadmeh] was arrested because Palestinian Authority officials assume that, apart from the anonymous Hamas [leaders] in Jordan, it is Makadmeh who could give the green light for a campaign of suicide bombing revenge attacks against Israel,” Amira Hass, the West Bank correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote Sunday.

Arafat undoubtedly realizes that a Hamas attack on Israel now not only would kill the chances for a further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank, currently under negotiation, but would bury the whole peace process that is the reason Palestinians have supported Arafat for the last 4 1/2 years.

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Beyond that, he may be afraid that backing for Hamas violence is growing in the absence of progress in the peace process, which has been deadlocked since early 1997, when Israel broke ground on the Har Homa Jewish housing project on the outskirts of traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.

Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki notes, however, that the Palestinian Authority is not cracking down on Hamas to the same degree it did in 1996, after a wave of suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis in revenge for the assassination of Hamas bomb maker Yehiya Ayash by Israeli agents.

That time, Arafat shut down schools, health clinics and mosques run by Hamas, and arrested hundreds of activists in social and political wings of the Islamic movement.

“I don’t think this is a crackdown on Hamas. It is an attempt to bring stability to the situation. They don’t want an escalation,” said Shikaki, director of the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies in the West Bank city of Nablus.

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The Palestinian Authority appears to be arresting Hamas leaders to interrogate them about Sharif’s killing, Shikaki said.

“They want to put the pieces together and find out what happened as quickly as possible, because people generally tend not to trust the Palestinian Authority on this and to believe Hamas. It is difficult for them to believe Hamas would kill one of its own,” he said.

Average Palestinians clearly are confused about the circumstances surrounding Sharif’s death and uncertain where to lay the blame. While the Palestinian Authority says Hamas carried out the killing, Hamas suggests that agents of the West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, killed the bomb maker, either because of a personal vendetta or on behalf of Israel.

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Sunday in the West Bank city of Hebron, where thousands of Jewish settlers and right-wing leaders launched Israel’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Palestinian residents were adamant that they do not want to see Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fighting each other.

“This dispute could be an excuse for Israeli intelligence to come between them and add oil to the fire,” said Rasem Hroub, 40, a jewelry shop owner.

“If the Palestinians start fighting each other,” added businessman Yusri Hroub, 25, “then Israel is going to say, ‘See, we cannot trust our security in the hands of the Palestinians.’ ”

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Times special correspondent Maher Abu Khater contributed to this report from Hebron.


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