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World Perspective | MIDEAST

Hamas Leader Yassin, Fresh From Tour, a Rival to Arafat

June 19, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — He's been feted from Tehran to Khartoum. He's made virulently anti-Israeli statements and reportedly collected pledges worth millions of dollars for his militant Palestinian organization.

Now, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and charismatic spiritual leader of the Islamic group Hamas, is coming home to the Gaza Strip, his stature enhanced by a triumphal, four-month tour of the Middle East.

And he is likely to pose new challenges both for Israel and for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"Sheik Yassin has been received as a leader by the leaders of the Arab world and Iran," said Ziad abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and political scientist. "That has increased his prestige and that of Hamas in the eyes of many Palestinians"--and has made his movement an even more formidable rival to Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Hamas violently opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords and is believed responsible for suicide bombings that have killed scores of Israeli civilians in the past three years.

Ever eager to co-opt his competition, Arafat recently invited Hamas and other opposition groups to consult on the appointment of a new Palestinian Cabinet. Hamas agreed to give Arafat the benefit of its "advice," as one official said this week, but flatly rejected the notion of joining his government.

And no wonder, judging by recent public opinion surveys.

Yassin's popularity among Palestinians, while low compared with Arafat's, is inching up. At the same time, support for Arafat, closely linked to the failing peace process with Israel, is dropping: 8% of Palestinians said in a recent poll that Yassin is the political figure they find most trustworthy, up from 5% last fall. In the same period, Arafat's standing dropped to 38% from 46%.

Yassin, 62, was freed from an Israeli prison last fall in exchange for the release of two Israeli agents who had tried to kill a top Hamas political leader in Jordan. He is expected to return to Gaza within a week.

He set out Feb. 19 on a visit to Cairo for medical treatment. But Yassin, who is blind, nearly deaf and confined to a wheelchair, then embarked on a journey that might have exhausted many a younger, healthier man.

He visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait and Sudan. He was greeted in each country with the ceremony accorded a head of state. Some nations, like Kuwait, bear grudges against Arafat for his backing of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War and were eager to bestow favors on a rival. Others, including Saudi Arabia, sought to mollify their own Islamic opposition movements by supporting Yassin.

He was quick to take advantage of his standing to publicize Hamas goals. Talks with Israel are "a waste of time," he said in Damascus, the Syrian capital. "The first quarter of the next century will witness the elimination of the Zionist entity and the establishment of the Palestinian state over the whole of Palestine."

He reportedly raised about $50 million, including $25 million from a member of the Saudi royal family. But he said the money will be used to support Hamas' network of social welfare programs, including children's camps, medical clinics and orphanages, and not what it calls its "military operations."

Still, many people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, have found his tireless fund-raising and militant statements unsettling, with analysts on both sides estimating that the peace process is now so fragile that one more suicide attack could derail it for good.

But even without such attacks, Yassin's new prestige could make progress toward peace--for Arafat and others--even more difficult than before. "Hamas is likely now to adopt a more activist internal policy," said Khalil Shikaki, head of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in the West Bank town of Nablus. "That could begin to really threaten Mr. Arafat."

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