- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Palestinian police arrested 16 Hamas militants yesterday, but senior leaders of the Islamic group brushed aside the move by going about their daily business in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered the arrests after a suicide bombing by Hamas on Tuesday that killed 15 Israelis in a suburb south of Tel Aviv.
In Washington, the Bush administration voiced skepticism that Arafat's move marked the beginning of a major effort to halt the bombings that have killed scores of Israelis during the past 19 months.
"The president views this again as a very key test of whether the Palestinian Authority is dedicated to what they promised at Oslo, which is justice and is what the world should expect of a group of people who want to be leaders of a state that focuses on stability," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
"If people are engaged in murder, they should be held accountable and a good government would arrest them and take it seriously and keep them locked up," he said.
Word about the arrests came from Hamas officials speaking to reporters in the Gaza Strip on the condition of anonymity.
They said the group's senior members made no attempts to hide despite expectations of an Israeli military strike in Gaza, Hamas' power base, in response to the Tel Aviv attack.
"Israel is always threatening the Palestinians and practicing those threats. This is part of daily life under the Israeli occupation. We will defend ourselves," senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "The Islamic faith tells us that life is in the hands of God, not [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."
From the time it was founded in 1988, Hamas, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, has been a serious rival of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement.
It is the main Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories. It opposes the Oslo peace process, and its short-term goal is a complete withdrawal of Israel from the occupied lands.
Its long-term aim is to destroy Israel and establish an Islamic state.
In spite of a massive crackdown in 1996, when the Palestinian Authority arrested about 1,000 Hamas members and supporters, Mr. Arafat has been walking a fine line between trying to appear in control and not completely antagonizing the group.
Its leadership has been divided, with some allowing for its eventual absorption into the Palestinian political scene as a legitimate opposition party. But others argue that the military wing is necessary to protect against Israeli repression.
The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 66, was freed from prison in Israel five years ago in exchange for the release from a Jordanian prison of Israeli Mossad agents after a bungled attempt to assassinate the Hamas leader in Jordan, Khaled Meshal.
After his release, Sheik Yassin focused his efforts on rebuilding Hamas' educational and charitable institutions, which had been damaged or completely destroyed in the 1996 crackdown.
King Hussein of Jordan allowed the group's top leaders to operate in the country, where a big part of the population is Palestinian, as a way to maintain leverage over Mr. Arafat. But the king's son and successor, King Abdullah II, expelled them to Qatar.


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