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The World : Will the Peace-Minded Arabs Pull the Plug on Hamas?

October 30, 1994|Howard R. Teicher | Howard R. Teicher, author of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America's Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush" (Morrow), served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1982-87

WASHINGTON — It might seem ironic to many Western observers that Israel's recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, its implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles and its new peace treaty with Jordan have emboldened and strengthened Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. But recall that many in the West never understood the antipathy of most Egyptians, and much of the Arab world, toward Anwar Sadat's peace diplomacy or the rage and hostility, in general, of Islamic militants toward the West. Still, with both hope and expectations of what peace can mean growing throughout the Middle East, is it not possible that Hamas' influence will diminish as Arab governments line up to sign treaties with Israel?

Well aware of the rising influence of Hamas during the waning years of Israel's occupation, PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat tried to co-opt or neutralize Hamas by offering its leadership the opportunity to participate in his self-governing authority. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin discreetly attempted to strengthen Arafat's hand, but was handicapped by his own vulnerability to right-wing opposition to any dealings with the Palestinian leader. So far, Arafat has neither improved the daily lives of most Palestinians nor successfully tempered Hamas' violent opposition to peaceful reconciliation with Israel. Hamas, ever conscious of Arafat's dilemma, continues to promote armed struggle against Israel but its strategy is not to fight the Declaration of Principles; rather, it is to take maximum advantage of it.

Arafat thus finds himself caught between the Israeli hammer and the Hamas anvil. Hamas members slay two Israelis while shooting up a cafe district in Jerusalem; kidnaps and murders an Israeli soldier, and orchestrates the terrorist bombing of a commuter bus in Tel Aviv, killing 23. In response, Israel pushes Arafat to crack down. Arrests are made to appease Israel's outrage, but Hamas activists are promptly released by the Palestinian Authority. The net result is the strengthening of Hamas at Arafat's expense.

Against this background, Arafat lamely argues that he can persuade Hamas to cooperate with him and eventually come to terms with Israel. Nevertheless, even Arafat's own political organization, Al-Fatah, acknowledges that Hamas claims the loyalty of at least 25% of the population in the Gaza Strip.

Of direct consequence to Israeli security and to Israeli confidence in Rabin's negotiating skills is the fact that Arafat has not acted to neutralize the armed wing of Hamas. By withdrawing from Gaza and turning security chores over to the Palestinian police, the Israelis have witnessed a rapid and dramatic increase in the amount and type of weaponry now being fielded by Hamas terrorists.

With the ever more sophisticated arming of various Palestinian factions, an escalation to which Arafat has acquiesced, Gaza is beginning to resemble Beirut before the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975. In addition to possessing automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Hamas has reportedly acquired anti-tank guided missiles and other short-range high-performance weapon systems. Non-Palestinian veterans of the war in Afghanistan are now turning up in Gaza. For these zealots, the cause of Hamas may hold even greater importance than the liberation of Afghanistan.

Since its inception during the intifada , Hamas has been affiliated with an organization known as Ikhwan al-Muslimin, or the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood has consistently called for the removal of secular regimes and the establishment of Islamic governments. Organized along national lines, its chapters have pursued this goal using various means and strategies, some peaceful, others violent.

Following the liberation of Afghanistan by the mujahedeen, Hamas assumed the mantle of the vanguard of the Brotherhood. At international conferences, it repeatedly affirmed that "the route to Islamic redemption is the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine." The liberation of Jerusalem became the rallying cry of Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Thus, the agreement by Israel and Jordan to assign responsibility for the preservation of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem to Jordan's King Hussein has further inflamed the passions of Islamic fundamentalists everywhere.

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