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In Kidnaping Israeli Soldier, Hamas Shows a New Sophistication

October 16, 1994|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the USA-Israel Alliance" (Hyperion)

TEL AVIV — By kidnaping an Israeli soldier, Hamas held the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hostage, undermined Yasser Arafat's authority and damaged the morale and pride of the Israeli military. Nonetheless, the Israeli government salvaged some pride, at least in the eyes of Israelis, by showing its determination to fight terrorism, though its high-risk rescue attempt tragically failed to free Cpl. Nachshon Waxman. In the operation on Friday, Waxman, three Hamas captors and one Israeli rescuer were killed.

Hamas, whose military wing took responsibility for the operation, had managed within days to achieve several of its long-sought goals. Although the Palestinian fundamentalist movement had linked Waxman's freedom to the release of hundreds of Palestinian guerrillas-- including their spiritual and religious leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin--the Hamas' agenda was more far-reaching. Aside from sabotaging the peace talks, which aimed to extend Palestinian self-government beyond its limited authority in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, Hamas has poisoned the atmosphere between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The kidnaping of Waxman overshadowed Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to the region and his mission to narrow the gap between Israel and Syria. No less important, the drama deepened the distrust between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat at an especially sensitive time. Both leaders, along with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, were named recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

What enabled Hamas to succeed where it had failed time and time again? The answer is a combination of timing and self-improvement. The kidnaping of the Israeli soldier was the second blow the organization had inflicted on Israel within 48 hours. Last Sunday, two gunmen, also members of Hamas' military wing, opened fire on a crowded and narrow street in a fashionable part of Jerusalem, killing two and injuring 15. These two incidents showed, as Israeli military and intelligence officers have acknowledged, that the military wing of Hamas has become an impressive, sophisticated and deadly guerrilla force.

Hamas, which in Arabic means "fervor," was formed by Sheik Yassin in late 1987 or early 1988, about the same time the intifada began. Its founding charter contends that the soil of all Palestine is a wakr (Muslim holy property) that belongs to Muslims forever. To Hamas, there is no place for Israel as an independent state of the Jewish people.

The Hamas message also includes Muslim unity and enmity toward the West and modern Western culture. The mosques, religious schools, clinics and community centers that Israel's military administration helped to build during its 27 years of occupation of Gaza and the West Bank became hotbeds of religious and political agitation, as well as centers for the recruitment and military training of Hamas members.

At the same time, Hamas secretly formed its military wing, known as Ez a-Din al-Kassam Brigades. It is named after a Syrian-Palestinian leader of the 1930s, whose ideology was a mixture of Muslim religiosity, Arab nationalism and the idea of jihad (holy war) against the British government, which ruled Palestine at the time, and Jewish Zionists during Israel's pre-statehood. Eventually, Kassam was killed in 1935, in a military clash with the British forces.

Mirroring their namesake, Ez a-Din al-Kassam Brigades declared jihad against Israel. After using knives and axes to indiscriminately kill Israeli civilians inside and outside the occupied territories, Hamas guerrillas embarked on a new campaign in December, 1992. Israeli soldiers, secret agents and Jewish settlers became the preferred targets.

Before Waxman, nine Israeli soldiers were kidnaped and murdered. Two of Israel's General Security Services agents were slain by their Palestinian informers. In these operations, members of the Hamas military wing disguised themselves as Israelis, occasionally even pretending to be Orthodox Jews, and used stolen cars with Israeli license plates to lure their intended victims, some of whom were hitchhiking.

Though Israeli intelligence has occasionally succeeded in planting informers, exposing its secret cells, arresting its members and killing some of its commanders in armed clashes, Hamas has become far more difficult to control. "The Ez a-Din al-Kassam Brigades," admits a senior Israeli intelligence operative, "maintain a highly secretive structure which is difficult to penetrate. They minimize contacts between the various units and use special couriers with coded messages for communication, which is hard to intercept. Their cadre is very disciplined and committed to their cause. They are ready to die for it."

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