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Rise of Islamic Militants Worries Israel Officials : Marriage of Religion, Nationalism Stirs New Boldness Among Palestinians

September 14, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A canceled beauty contest and the arrest of a 25-year-old Bethlehem seamstress accused of planning to trigger a car bomb in central Jerusalem may appear to have little in common.

However, according to Palestinian and Israeli sources, both of those late-August developments were actually part of a powerful Islamic revival that is subtly but significantly transforming the seemingly endless conflict over this thin strip of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

While the conflict has always had religious overtones, particularly when viewed in its regional, Arab-Israeli context, until relatively recently it was essentially a nationalist struggle. The Arab residents identified foremost with the secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

The PLO remains a powerful symbol of hoped-for independence among Palestinians, but a growing number of them appear to be returning to their Islamic roots for inspiration.

In the case of the would-be car bomber and an increasing number of others like her who have reportedly joined cells fighting under the banner of a group called Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), the consequences of this marriage of religion and nationalism are a boldness and determination that have Israeli security officials worried.

Said one source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by either name or nationality: "The problem is that their (Islamic Jihad) operations are very painful. They are very fanatic and are ready to risk more than the others. They do what we call quality operations--not quantity but quality."

Militants Want More

And while the PLO says its goal is the creation of a state on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, the emerging Islamic militants want much more.

"The Muslim activists are against any political settlement with Israel and believe in liberating all of Palestine," according to a recent article in the English-language Palestinian weekly Al Fajr.

While it remains much weaker here than in many other Middle East countries, the signs of Islam's resurgence are clear both among Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.

By some authoritative estimates, attendance at regular Friday mosque services has almost doubled in the last five years, and young people account for much of the difference. A longtime resident noted that even in what is generally viewed as the predominantly Christian Bethlehem area, there are now a dozen mosques.

'Major Political Force'

Islam has become what one Palestinian source called "a major political force" at West Bank and Gaza universities, where Muslim blocs compete in student council elections with nationalist Palestinian slates, identified with Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, and pro-Communist groups.

The Muslim blocs beat out all the Palestinian factions in Hebron University elections earlier this year, and they have dominated at Gaza's Islamic University since it was founded in 1978. The Muslim student groups run a close second to Fatah, ahead of the leftist PLO factions, at Najah University in Nablus, and they are even gaining strength at Birzeit and Bethlehem universities, where there are large percentages of Christian Arab students.

The latest evidence of growing Muslim influence was the cancellation of what the organizers had promoted as the first-ever Palestinian beauty contest in the occupied territories.

Advertised on a Thursday, the ill-fated contest was shelved by that Sunday after blistering, religious-based attacks on it during weekend prayer services in Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus.

More Militant Strain

Of most concern to Israelis, however, is the emergence within the broader Islamic movement of the more militant strain symbolized by Islamic Jihad.

The size of the movement is unknown, partly because most of its activists keep their connection secret rather than risk arrest. However, The Islamic Selection, an Islamic Jihad magazine published openly in Egypt, is said to be circulated clandestinely here "in the thousands."

As that suggests, these religious Palestinian militants are tied spiritually, if not organizationally, with like-minded Muslims in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, some of whom also use the name Islamic Jihad.

The name first emerged publicly here less than a year ago in connection with a grenade attack on a group of Israeli army recruits and their families after a swearing-in ceremony at Jerusalem's hallowed Western Wall, said to be the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple complex destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

One person was killed and 69 were wounded in that October, 1986, attack, and three Arabs from the village of Silwan, near Jerusalem, were later sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying it out. They identified themselves as members of Islamic Jihad.

2 Fatal Stabbings

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