- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Amin Amoudy, enveloped in a huddle of his 17-member family, opened the door to his apartment in this squalid neighborhood in Gaza City and peeled back his lips in a grin. Hamas was paying him a visit, and now they could eat.

Mr. Amoudy welcomed in two bearded aid workers, and his children eagerly set about unwrapping the bags they had brought, containing tinned beans, sugar, flour and cooking oil.

"I take from the Palestinian Authority and from the U.N. agencies, but the Islamic Charity provides the most aid," said Mr. Amoudy, referring to a Hamas-run group that operates a network of kindergartens, health clinics and 35 youth-league volleyball and soccer teams in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which is known to outsiders for its suicide bombers like the one that killed 20 persons at a seaside Israeli disco Friday, yesterday rejected calls by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a cease-fire.

Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said his group would continue to attack Israelis, brushing aside threats of Israeli retaliation for Friday´s attack that had prompted Mr. Arafat to call a truce.

"If I accept a cease-fire, it means … I am raising a white flag," Sheik Yassin told reporters after a rally of some 500 Hamas supporters in Gaza. " should remove their settlers. Our land must be returned and our people must win liberation."

Hamas has claimed responsibility for the disco bombing, referring to it as "the great Tel Aviv operation" carried out by "our heroic brigades."

It was the deadliest attack in Israel since the Palestinian uprising began in September.

But Hamas´ popularity in squalid refugee camps in the Gaza Strip appears to come as much from its aid to the poor as its war against Israel.

Hamas provides food and cash to all of Gaza´s poor, regardless of their political affiliation, periodically handing out to each family the equivalent of $50 in Israeli shekels, the currency most used by Palestinians.

"How can I live? How is the authority going to help me?" asked a woman, referring to the Palestinian Authority headed by Mr. Arafat. The woman, who declined to give her name, clutched two 100-shekel notes given to her by Hamas.

The political message underlying the Hamas charitable organizations is nonetheless obvious.

At a recent play conducted at one of the Hamas-run kindergartens, one boy acted out the role of Sheik Yassin, the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas.

Another boy pretended to be Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese guerrilla group, Hezbollah. Other children in the play were bodyguards, armed with plastic assault rifles.

Israel has said Hamas provides social services as a means to recruit suicide bombers like the one who detonated himself outside the Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday.

Israel has demanded that Mr. Arafat, as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, take control of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group; otherwise, Israel has said in thinly veiled threats, the Palestinian Authority will pay the price because it set free many jailed Muslim militants.

But trying to dismantle Hamas, which has become increasingly popular among Palestinians since the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, last fall could be political suicide for Mr. Arafat.

Israel also has made it clear that allowing Hamas to operate freely, could also cost Mr. Arafat dearly.

The director of Hamas´ Islamic Charity in the Gaza Strip, Sheik Ahmed Bahr, said the group acts as a type of "shadow government."

"We help the families of prisoners, the poor, the families of martyrs, in particular now when the people are in a time of need because of the Zionist aggressions," Sheik Bahr said.

U.N. Commissioner-General Peter Hansen, who is in charge of providing basic services for some 4 million Palestinian refugees, has said Palestinians are growing increasingly desperate as the intifada drags on.

He said Israel´s closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and harsh security measures, including bulldozing Palestinian farmland, have "sown the seeds of hatred."

"There has been a very strong radicalization, which shouldn´t surprise anyone with the kind of destruction that is going on here, with fighter bombers flying overhead every day, helicopter gunships firing missiles at houses, the massive destruction of houses, and bulldozers used to turn refugee shelters into rubble," Mr. Hansen said.

"You cannot expect anything but a radicalization and a feeling on the part of many that the path towards peace proved to them so far to be a path to nowhere or even a path to even greater subjugation and humiliation."

A recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion said that a vast majority of Palestinians support suicide attacks against Israelis.

Senior Hamas political leader Ismail Abu Shanab said suicide attacks against Israeli shopping malls and nightclubs were necessary because Israel was also guilty of killing Palestinian civilians.

"The terror among Palestinian society which came after each Israeli attack and the long-lasting terror from the occupation which lasted more than 35 years up to this point now the Palestinians are trying to balance this terror by reacting against Israelis," said Mr. Shanab.

"So you can consider the Palestinian attacks on Israeli society as balancing terror or deterring terror to deter Israelis from terrorizing Palestinians."

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