- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

JERUSALEM For a man who ranks highly on the most-wanted list of both the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, Sheik Abdul Majid Atta appears remarkably relaxed.
From the roof of his house in Bethlehem's sprawling Deheisha refugee camp, the veteran Hamas activist points out an Israeli army position on a nearby hilltop, where, he says, snipers carry his photograph and monitor his movements around the clock.
"Of course, they could kill me whenever they want, and I'm sure that would make Yasser Arafat very happy, too," Mr. Atta observed cheerfully.
"But my fate is of no importance because Hamas will live on and, as anyone in this camp can tell you, we are growing more powerful than ever because the people have us in their hearts."
Mr. Arafat still may be in charge of the ruling Palestinian Authority, Mr. Atta said, "but we are now the true masters of the streets."
On a journey through the West Bank and Gaza last week, it was clear that Mr. Arafat was dangerously exposed, caught between an increasingly belligerent Israeli government's demands to put Islamic terror groups out of business and the rage of ordinary Palestinians against any collaboration with the enemy.
The Americans, too, are losing patience. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters on a flight to Moscow that the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings which continued in Israel yesterday was "destroying [Mr. Ararats] authority and credibility."
"The Palestinian people ought to be asking their leaders, 'Where does this take us?' And the answer is, 'Nowhere,'" he said.
Nevertheless, the fervor of the Deheisha camp's support for the deadliest of the Islamic extremist organizations, whose suicide bombers have killed and maimed scores of Israeli civilians, was demonstrated a few days ago when a posse of armed Palestinian Authority police came to arrest the sheik.
It was about midnight, but furious residents instantly piled into the street, vowing to protect him from the crackdown that Mr. Arafat mounted against Islamic militant groups last week following a ferocious ultimatum from Israel.
"They were screaming at these officers to get out, calling them traitors to Palestine for doing Israel's dirty work," Mr. Atta recalled with relish.
Kalashnikov rifles appeared from arms caches hidden in the maze of narrow back alleys. After shots were fired in the air around them, the police beat a humiliating retreat and the sheikh's joyful supporters headed for the mosque in which he preached every day to celebrate.
The following day in Gaza City, supposedly Mr. Arafat's personal fiefdom, an even fiercer clash underlined the danger that Hamas posed.
In another swoop after dark, police arrived at the house of the founder and spiritual leader of the organization, the half-blind and paraplegic Sheik Ahmed Yassin, to place him under house arrest for telling the Al Jazeera television network that the Palestinian Authority had forfeited its right to represent the people.
Summoned to Mr. Yassin's defense by blaring loudspeakers, some 3,000 Palestinians, many armed and masked, flocked to the squalid neighborhood where in telling contrast to the luxury beachfront apartments of Mr. Arafat's cronies he lived in conspicuous modesty.
Among them was a young engineering student, Ibrahim Addes.
"The sheik is our father figure, a hero who will lead us to victory while that jackal Arafat just conspires against Hamas with the Americans and the Jews," he explained. "We are the new generation of Islam, ready to become shahid [holy martyrs] by bombing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, at his command."
As tension mounted in the streets, a fuming Mr. Arafat was holed up in his compound in Ramallah on the West Bank, prevented by Israel's military muscle from returning to his Gaza headquarters and under extreme international pressure to begin the clampdown on Islamic militants.
To save face, he instructed aides to report that, while he was serious about doing so, he would not act under threats from Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister.
Alongside its military operations, Hamas is steadily creating what amounts to a parallel administration that puts the near-bankrupt and corruption-ridden Palestinian Authority to shame, with its well-run schools, health clinics and food-distribution centers.
"They clearly model themselves on the Hezbollah, who became heroes to the Palestinians when they drove Israeli troops from South Lebanon last year," said an Israeli official who monitors Islamic fundamentalist organizations.
"Hezbollah went from strength to strength among the Shi'ite population by providing social welfare with one hand and killing Israelis with the other. Hamas is going down the same track, and it has plenty of money at its disposal."
Although President Bush's decision last week to freeze fund-raising by Islamic groups will cut the flow of cash from America, most of Hamas' income now derives from the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia. One senior Western diplomat said the Saudis have promised $150 million for charitable operations. Some of this likely is to be diverted to military purposes.

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