- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Israeli forces battled their way into the southern Gaza Strip with tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers in one of the largest such operations in years, Hamas threatens to carry the fight to other parts of the Palestinian territories.

“Sharon must understand that Hamas will extend the fight to other parts of the Palestinian territories, such as the West Bank,” Osama Hamdan, the top Hamas representative in Beirut, told United Press International Wednesday.

If Mr. Arafat is expelled to Gaza, it will make no difference to Hamas, which vows “to extend the fight to the West Bank.”

Israel meanwhile, reportedly fired three missiles from attack helicopters at a crowd of civilian Palestinians demonstrating against the Israeli incursion in Gaza. First reports say at least 10 Palestinians were killed and 40 wounded. Television images showed men, running from the scene of the attack, some of them carrying wounded children.

Mr. Hamdan said, given the current political trend and the intransigence demonstrated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud government, he was pessimistic about the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Furthermore, Mr. Hamdan said, current U.S. policy does nothing to solve the problems facing the region today. He predicted the future does not carry any political settlement. While Hamas has long argued it would never accept an Israeli state, it does — in principle — accept a prolonged cease-fire. The cease-fire could last up to 25 years, if necessary.

“But our stand is clear,” said Mr. Hamdan. We want one Palestinian state, and the Jews are welcomed to live in peace with us. However, we will never accept Israel.

“The fact that the U.S. believes it can solve everything by using brute military force will not help the situation in the Middle East,” he said. Nor, of course, did he think President George W. Bush’s unabated, almost blind support of Sharon, to be constructive.

In recent weeks the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas, has been under persistent attack. Israeli helicopters fired missiles killing two of their top leaders — the quadriplegic Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his replacement, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantissi — as well as at offices used by Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups.

Asked why Hamas has not retaliated for the killing of its two leaders by Israel, Mr. Hamdan said: “Wait a while, the retaliation will come. “Usually, these kinds of things are sometimes delayed in our movement. But it will come,” he warned.

Mr. Hamdan said the aim of the Israeli military is to contain the Palestinians and confine them within Gaza. Mr. Sharon, according to Mr. Hamdan, wants to force Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of his current headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah and forcibly transfer him to Gaza.

Mr. Sharon’s intention is that once in Gaza, Mr. Arafat would try to take over the running of the strip, now practically under Hamas tutelage. Mr. Hamdan believes Mr. Sharon hopes such a move would push Hamas and Mr. Arafat’s followers into a civil war, keeping them at each other and away from the Israelis.

However, Mr. Hamdan said, Hamas would welcome Mr. Arafat in the Gaza Strip. The militant Islamic group would expect the Palestinian Authority president to organize all social and civilian aspects of life, while leaving the resistance to Hamas.

Fatah, Mr. Arafat’s main resistance group under the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella, “is no longer what it was,” Mr. Hamdan said. Hamas’ popularity rise, especially in the Gaza Strip, has come largely at the expense of the Arafat group.

A main reason for Hamas’ success is how it deals with Palestinians at the grass roots. Hamas continues collecting millions of dollars annually despite attempts by Israel and the Bush administration to close their bank accounts and dry up their money trails.

Unlike the PA, which many observers say is far from generous with its funds, Hamas consistently compensates families of Palestinians killed and maimed in the intifada, or uprising. However, Mr. Hamdan claims his organization no longer collects funds destined for victims’ families. It arranges instead for donors to transfer monies directly to recipients, in an effort to avoid having accounts frozen as a result of U.S. pressure.

Hamas said the United Arab Emirates donated $18 million to the PA to help rebuild the Jenin refugee camp ravaged by fighting with Israel two years ago. “Not a dime of the $18 million made it out to the people,” Mr. Hamdan said.

“Hamas has not really been affected by the financial controls,” imposed as a result of the Bush administration’s war on global terrorism, he said.

Mr. Hamdam sees the second aim of Israel’s Gaza offensive as completely isolating Gaza and cutting it off from Egypt. “Israel,” he explains, “intends to dig a ditch 80-meter [yards] wide, by 5 meters deep along the Gaza-Egyptian border in order to prevent Palestinians from tunneling under the border, to smuggle guns, ammunition and men, in and out of the strip.”

Mr. Hamdan said, the current Gaza assault is meant to deny Palestinians any sense of “victory” after Israel unilaterally withdraws from Gaza, as Mr. Sharon intends. “He wants to make the withdrawal from Gaza painful, contrary to Lebanon.”

After Israel’s military pullout from southern Lebanon under continuous harassment from Hezbollah militias in 2000, the Lebanese Shi’ite militants regarded Israel’s sudden departure as a military and political victory. That was not lost on Hamas and other Palestinian groups fighting Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. Israel wants to avoid a repeat of the Lebanese debacle.

Mr. Hamdan said there are no options for the Palestinians now: “Either you fight, or you are crushed.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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