- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

TEL AVIV — The militant Islamic group Hamas has soared to new heights of prestige among Palestinians this week even as its deadly attacks on Israel have brought sharp condemnation in Washington and retaliatory strikes against its top officers by Israeli security forces.

When a Hamas suicide bomber disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew detonated an explosive on a Jerusalem municipal bus Tuesday at rush hour, killing 16 persons, it confirmed Hamas’ place at the forefront of the Palestinian groups seeking to undermine the U.S.-backed “road map” to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians

Israeli missile strikes at Hamas leaders, including yet another one yesterday that killed a leading Hamas operative, have only reinforced the feeling among Palestinians of the group’s power. An Israeli strike Tuesday narrowly missed killing top Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

“When your enemies go for your leaders, it means that they’re afraid of you and that means you are doing something right,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist. The Israeli reaction “shows that they’re powerful and, as much as Israel has tried to go after them, they are able to fight back.”

Indeed, in the 15 years since its founding, Hamas’ strength has waxed as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbated and waned during periods of reconciliation.

Hamas, whose name means “zeal” in Arabic and is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, was established in the 1987 — at the time of the first Palestinian uprising — as a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood had been active in the Gaza Strip and West Bank since the 1970s, but functioned as a social welfare organization.

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood actually received funding from Israel, which was interested in cultivating a rival to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization. Palestinian Authority officials accuse Israel of providing the seed funding for Hamas, though Mr. Rantisi, a co-founder, denied this week that Israel had any part in Hamas’ establishment.

The Hamas charter, adopted in 1988, lays out the organization’s ideology, a mix of nationalism and a Islamic fundamentalism that sees the territory of Palestine as land belonging to Muslims which can never be relinquished.

In the twilight years of the first uprising in the mid-1990s, as popular support waned, the group rose to prominence through a series of kidnappings and murders of Israeli soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Hamas an even bigger boost when in 1993 he ordered an overnight roundup and expulsion of dozens of the organization’s leaders.

The signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords in the 1990s led to the marginalization of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat established itself as the government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and talk of a two-state solution seemed to make Hamas’ rejectionist ideology irrelevant.

But in 1994, Hamas started a bombing campaign that cemented its reputation as a spoiler for the peace accords. And in 1996, its military wing carried out a lightning bombing campaign in the months leading up to Israeli elections, dooming the candidacy of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

During that period, the Israeli army cooperated with Palestinian Authority intelligence to fight against Hamas, sending many of its militants to Palestinian jails.

The breakdown of the 2000 Camp David peace conference and outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, put Hamas back at the forefront of the Palestinian political scene. Fatah, the party of Mr. Arafat, established a military wing to reproduce the suicide bombings that were contributing to Hamas’ prestige.

While Israel’s army targeted Palestinian Authority police installations and gradually sapped the strength of Mr. Arafat’s military outfit, Hamas was building even more power. Helped by popular discontent with widespread corruption among Palestinian Authority institutions, Hamas’ network of social organizations became even more important as an Israel’s military crackdown sent the economy into a tailspin.

The group’s stronghold is found in poverty-stricken alleyways of Gaza City, which is also known for its religious conservatism. When Israel’s army swept into West Bank cities in the spring of 2002 and drove Hamas militants underground, the leadership in the Gaza Strip remained largely intact.

Hamas’ spiritual leader is Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a paraplegic who spent eight years in Israeli jails and has been put under house arrest twice by the Palestinian Authority. The group also gets logistical and financial support from affiliate branches in Syria, and from Islamic charities throughout the Arab world.

Over the past year, Hamas had been conducting talks with the Palestinian Authority on a possible cease-fire with Israel. The group is sensitive to Palestinian public opinion that still hopes for a cessation in the violence, Palestinian and Israeli observers say.

But the talks have proved a failure to date. Last week, Mr. Rantisi led Hamas in pulling out of the last session of negotiations.

“As long as Hamas feels that it’s strong enough to continue its attacks with impunity, that the [Palestinian Authority] isn’t strong enough to crack down, then there’s no incentive for a cease-fire,” said Shmuel Bar, antiterrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya.

“They are very powerful at bad times, but they don’t have much to say at good times,” Mr. Kuttab said. “Their biggest enemy is quiet and movement in the peace process.”

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