Hamas Leaders Keep Low Profile

Times Staff Writer

They move from house to house. They keep meetings to a minimum, avoid getting into cars and eschew their cellphones. When going out in public, they choose crowded places, especially those with women and children, to make themselves a difficult target.

Life these days for leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas is a series of careful calculations designed to reduce the risk of being hit by missiles or gunfire in Israel’s declared campaign to hunt them down and pick them off.

Since Israeli forces began a string of assassination attempts on senior Hamas operatives seven weeks ago in retaliation for a spate of deadly suicide bombings, many of the group’s top leaders, who are based in the Gaza Strip, have gone deep underground. That, in conjunction with several other factors, has hampered the organization’s ability to operate and mount major terrorist attacks, experts and sources close to the group say.


No one knows how long the relative lull in Hamas-directed activity will last. And other Muslim militant factions remain active, such as Islamic Jihad, which orchestrated the suicide attack in Haifa last weekend that killed 19 people at a restaurant. Israeli authorities are taking no chances: A full military closure of the West Bank and Gaza is expected to remain in force until the end of the Jewish holiday season in about two weeks.

After Israeli warplanes bombed a suspected Palestinian terrorist training camp in Syria on Sunday in retaliation for the Haifa attack, Hamas vowed revenge for “Zionist aggression ... in every way possible.”

But for the moment, the group’s leaders appear to be maintaining the low profile they have adopted of late, minimizing exposure and taking extra security precautions even though the pace of Israeli strikes on their operatives here has dropped off in the last few weeks.

“Leaders from Hamas feel that all the time they are in danger,” said Ghazi Hamad, editor of a pro-Hamas newspaper in Gaza. “They’re continuing operations, but not in such a comprehensive way as before.”

The group’s spiritual head, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, acknowledged in a recent interview with The Times that he and other Hamas leaders have had to change their routines, but he vowed that operatives would “be in the field, no matter what the sacrifices” would be.

“Hamas has proved in all its history that it can retaliate and make the enemy pay a double price for the crimes that he is committing,” said the half-blind, wheelchair-bound Yassin, whose bodyguards moved him from one corner to another inside a mosque for safety’s sake during a rare recent public appearance.


It was a near-miss on Yassin’s life and a narrow escape for another founding Hamas member, Mahmoud Zahar, that helped drive the group’s leadership further underground -- “into the dungeon,” as Shalom Harari, an Israeli terrorism expert, put it.

Yassin had not previously been targeted by the Israeli military, partly for fear of the tremendous Palestinian outcry and anger that would surely erupt. But the escape by Yassin, along with several other Hamas leaders, from being blown to bits by a half-ton Israeli bomb Sept. 6 put Hamas leaders on notice that no holds were barred. An assassination attempt on Zahar four days later, which killed his eldest son, also showed the Hamas leadership that even their loved ones were at risk.

“All this brought them to the understanding that Israel knows every minute where they are,” Harari said. “That has led to much deeper hiding than before, which paralyzes their ability to coordinate.”

With their communications disrupted -- cellphones are banned from use because of Israeli monitoring -- convening meetings has been difficult.

When they do get together, observers say, members of the group’s inner circle try to thwart detection by traveling separately, taking back roads and, according to one Israeli report, occasionally disguising themselves. When under threat in the past, Hamas leaders have held meetings in kindergartens or in crowded eateries to make an attack strategically impossible.

Besides fearing for their personal safety, analysts say, Hamas leaders also may be taking political considerations into account in refraining from ordering large-scale attacks on Israelis since back-to-back suicide bombings by Hamas members Sept. 9 killed 15 people.

After the bombings, the Israeli government announced its intention to “remove” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from the scene, whether by cutting off his contact with the outside world from his battered West Bank compound, expelling him or even killing him.

Although the decision drew a fusillade of international criticism -- including from Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States -- many Palestinians have taken the threat seriously, and Hamas is concerned that it could be blamed for triggering Arafat’s removal if one of its operatives carried out a massive terror attack. Although Islamic Jihad also is concerned about Arafat’s status, analysts say that Hamas often is more disciplined in carrying out the instructions of its top leaders, in this case to lie low.

“Arafat and others have given second thought to the declaration and are really afraid that Israel is looking for a good reason, that could be justified domestically and internationally, to deport him,” Harari said.

At the same time, talks are continuing between Hamas and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Korei, about a possible cease-fire to replace another short-lived truce by Palestinian militias that went up in flames in August. Korei is eager for a period of calm to launch his government and try to resuscitate the Middle East peace plan known as the “road map,” which is backed by the United States.

Moreover, Hamas has an interest in yet another set of negotiations underway, those between the Israeli government and the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. The two parties are bargaining over a prisoner swap that could encompass the release of scores, if not hundreds, of Palestinian prisoners, possibly including Hamas militants.

A large-scale Hamas-ordered terror strike would give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon justification for rejecting that part of the deal.

It also could provide political ammunition for a reinvigoration of the missile strikes on Hamas leaders and a major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, although some analysts see the second option as less likely for now.

In spite of the faction’s uncharacteristic quiet at the moment, those familiar with Hamas caution against thinking that its inactivity will last for long, especially now that Islamic Jihad has resumed the offensive. Hamas continues to issue threats against “the Zionist entity,” such as one recent warning that Israeli buildings and homes were in the organization’s sights.

“Since the beginning of this conflict, it’s been up and down,” said Hamad, the newspaper editor. “This quiet situation will not go on forever.”

Even the arrest of several wanted Hamas members and other suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank over the last few weeks would only temporarily hobble the groups, because new operatives quickly spring up to take their places, as the Israeli security establishment acknowledges.

In Gaza, top Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi has hinted that a shadow leadership was being groomed to take over if the entire upper echelon was wiped out.

“Hamas has the ability to create a new leadership tomorrow,” Hamad said. “It is a very popular organization.”