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Hamas Is Rising on a Wave of Violence

The Islamic militant group grows more popular as it trades strikes with Israel.

June 15, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — As 7-year-olds the world over are prone to do, the little boy squirmed and fidgeted as his mother bent over him to fuss with his clothing.

First she straightened the collar of his tiny military-style camouflage uniform. Then she smoothed his green Hamas headband, giving him a final pat before he scampered off to join the funeral procession Friday for a Palestinian mother and baby who had been killed the day before in an Israeli missile attack targeting a Hamas militant.

"I hope he will grow up to be a martyr one day -- that would be only natural, given the state of our lives," the boy's mother, wearing a black veil that concealed all but her eyes, said matter-of-factly. Her son, she said, is called Izzidin -- in honor of the military wing of Hamas, Izzidin al-Qassam.

In the gritty, sand-strewn streets of the Gaza Strip, scenes such as this help illustrate just how hard it will be for Israel to achieve anything resembling a clear victory in its war against the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.

After a week of strikes and counterstrikes -- including raids that wounded senior Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi, killed six other militants and caused scores of Palestinian civilian casualties, plus a bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 17 Israelis -- Palestinian popular support for the Islamic militant group appears only to be growing. At the same time, the political standing of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has plummeted, and the fragile American-backed peace plan has been endangered.

Hamas and senior Israeli officials agree on one thing: Their fight has become a no-holds-barred confrontation. Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, declared that Hamas should be crushed, and Israel said it would mark for death any member of the movement it considers a threat. Hamas vowed vengeance "like an earthquake" and said every Israeli man, woman and child was a target.

In strictly military terms, Israel, with its powerful, high-tech army, would appear able to subdue Hamas, whose ranks are believed to consist of only a few hundred active field operatives and whose arsenal consists mainly of the relatively small amounts of explosives needed to carry out suicide bombings.

What Hamas lacks in numbers and firepower, it makes up for with its ability to operate in small, secretive cells that in most cases act independently, working day in and day out to try to slip through Israel's security net and carry out suicide bombings and other attacks.

A Complex Conflict

"It's not like a war between armies or states," said retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, who until 18 months ago was the director of army intelligence. "It's low-intensity conflict, and low-intensity conflict is much more complicated than high."

Despite scathing criticism from Israeli commentators over the scope and timing of this campaign of assassination against Hamas leaders just a week after the Jordan summit on the peace "road map" backed by President Bush, Israel's military and intelligence establishment said it believes that to protect Israeli lives, there was no choice but to act.

"In some ways, the dynamic at work here regarding Israel and Hamas is completely divorced from external factors, having nothing to do with the Bush initiative or anything else," said Anat Kurz, a scholar at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the study of Islamic militant groups. "It has an internal logic to it that is very, very difficult to disrupt."

From Israel's standpoint, the preferred course of action would be for the Palestinian security apparatus to keep a lid on Hamas. Among the key provisions of the peace plan is that Palestinians take responsibility for security, but after being targeted by Israel throughout the 32 months of uprising, the Palestinian security service is crippled.

On Saturday, Israel and the Palestinian Authority held their first high-level security consultations since the Jordan summit to discuss how to quell the current spasm of violence.

Abbas has tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a truce with Hamas and other militant factions. Israeli officials do not think that a cease-fire with Hamas is the answer, because they believe that the group would simply use the time to regroup and reorganize -- and emerge stronger than ever.

In recent days, Israel's offensive against Hamas has had the unintended effect of bringing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, sidelined at U.S. and Israeli insistence, back to the political forefront. Abbas traveled to Jordan for eye surgery late last week, leaving Arafat to oversee Egyptian-mediated efforts to restart a dialogue with Hamas.

At key junctures in years past, Israel has also unwittingly strengthened Hamas with its actions.

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