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Terror grabs hold of Israel // Wild-eyed suicide bombers are not the whole of Hamas

The bombs of the past few days are a savage reminder the Israeli-Palestinian peace has a flaw called Hamas.

To furious Israelis, the fundamentalist Islamic movement is synonymous with a raw and indiscriminate terror that has to be destroyed.

When Yasser Arafat called Shimon Peres after the bombings to offer condolences, the Israeli prime minister reportedly exploded into the phone: "Don't tell me you're doing enough! Finish with the Hamas infrastructure! Arrests here, arrests there, that won't do it!"

To which the Arabic daily An-Nahar retorted in an editorial: "Peres is not asking for much from the Palestinian Authority _ just destroy the infrastructure of Hamas, as if Hamas was a club that can be closed and dissolved in a moment. . . .

"Hamas is a mass movement, and it will disappear only when Israel stops its hostility toward us."

What is Hamas?

The exchange framed a question fundamental to the attempts of the Israelis and Palestinians to shape a workable formula for coexistence: Just what is this force called Hamas, which can hold the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement hostage?

Is it an irreconcilable enemy of peace that has to be destroyed, as the Israelis insist, or is it a political and social movement that cannot be crushed but may be enticed to reject its fanatic fringe, as the Palestinians maintain?

There is no question that Hamas has done terrible things, that terror is an integral part of its mystique.

But the "armed struggle" is only a fraction of Hamas' activity. Inspired by the Islamic Brotherhoods in other Arab countries from which it got its start in 1987, Hamas _ an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement _ is dedicated to the triumph of Islam through social work, politics, indoctrination and force.

Unlike Islamic Holy War, a taut fundamentalist organization dedicated solely to "armed struggle," Hamas is a movement without a cohesive chain of command, making a crackdown all the more difficult. It is estimated to enjoy the direct support of about a quarter of the Palestinian population and varying degrees of sympathy among many more.

The Hamas movement gained strength in Israeli-occupied areas alongside the uprising known as the intifada. Since the signing of the first Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement in 1993, Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has struck more than a dozen times inside Israel, killing scores and wounding hundreds.

Most victims have been Israelis, but not all. Some have been Arab workers in Israel and, in last week's attack, a young engaged couple from New Jersey and Connecticut.

Most of the perpetrators, like the two young men responsible for last week's bombings, were Muslim zealots prepared to sacrifice their own lives for promises of paradise, glory and family support.

The tens of thousands of Palestinians who turned out for the funeral of Yahya Ayyash, an organizer of bomb attacks known as "the Engineer" who was killed Jan. 5 by a booby-trapped cellular phone, bore testimony to the powerful aura that the struggle against Israel still holds among Palestinians.

Experts think that the military wing operates separately from the political leadership and that the latter is split into at least three broad directions:

Moderates in the Gaza Strip who are hoping to participate in the new Palestinian politics.

West Bank leaders still testing their strength since the Israeli withdrawal.

And hard-core leaders in exile opposed to Arafat and his peace. They want to continue the jihad, or "holy war," against Israel.

The diffusion of the leadership was displayed last week when political and armed branches in Gaza disavowed responsibility for the bombings and made a joint offer to stop their attacks if Israel stopped hunting Hamas leaders and released Hamas prisoners from its jails.

The latest suicide attacks in Israel have laid open serious divisions within Hamas. They also raise questions about who's in charge and the degree to which political leaders of Hamas are able to control the underground bombers.

Palestinian leaders and Israeli experts believe the contradictions reflected in recent leaflets indicate a split, or multiple splits, within Hamas' military arm and between leaders in Palestinian-administered areas and abroad.

Jamil Hamami, the Hamas leader in the Jerusalem area, conceded there is confusion in the ranks and said he believed attacks were carried out by Hamas members operating outside the control of the political leaders.

Ziad Abu Ziad, a member of the newly elected Palestinian legislative council, said recent contradictory leaflets indicate "there is now a crisis inside the military arm of Hamas."

Social services

The real source of Hamas' authority among Palestinians is not the mystique of the "armed struggle" but the broad range of social services it developed under Israeli occupation.

Typically, a poor Palestinian family in the West Bank might send a child to a Hamas school on a Hamas bus, use a Hamas clinic for one dollar per visit, play soccer at a Hamas sports club and, if really needy, get a weekly ration of rice from Hamas. Then, in the mosques, the imams are likely to spread the Hamas message against "Zionism" and Western decadence.

A senior Israeli military officer who studies Hamas said in a briefing last week that 95 percent of the $60-million to $70-million that the movement raises annually goes for "civilian" activities, compared to only 5 percent for the "armed struggle."

He said 85 percent of the money comes from abroad, much of it from Persian Gulf states and the United States; 15 percent is collected internally.

The best way to choke off Hamas, the officer said, would be to choke off its money. But he acknowledged that most of the money came as legal contributions to charitable causes. "We don't have any ideas how to deal with this problem," he said.

Arafat's strategy

Arafat's spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, said Monday's bombing was "a declaration of war, and we should treat it as such."

Arafat's basic strategy has been to focus on the differences in the Hamas leadership by wooing the moderates, and to supplant its social programs with government services. The Palestinians argue that Gaza, which has been under Arafat's control for two years, has demonstrated the effectiveness of the approach.

By all accounts, the popularity of Hamas there has been waning. Local Hamas leaders have been at the forefront of efforts to mediate a truce with exile leaders, and in the Palestinian elections in January, 88 percent of the population cast ballots in defiance of Hamas' refusal to participate.

The Palestinians further note that there were no terror attacks for four months, until Ayyash was assassinated Jan. 5. Israel did not admit to the deed, but nobody has much doubt that it was the work of Israeli intelligence.

Afterward Israel braced for retaliation, and leaflets sent out after last weekend's attacks said they were by "cells of the martyr Engineer Ayyash" _ not the Qassam Brigades or Hamas.

In the past week, almost no Israeli commentator or politician has explored the Ayyash connection. In the Israeli view, the terror predates the Ayyash killing , and since the bombings the only debate has been how much tougher to get with the Palestinians.

"The main point is this," wrote Zeev Schiff, military analyst for the daily Haaretz, "under no circumstances should a message be sent to Hamas and its followers that Israel stands helpless before it."

Under Israeli pressure, Arafat ordered a roundup of more than 200 Islamic militants. But he also made clear he is not about to go after what Peres called the Hamas "infrastructure."

Even if he were willing to do so, it is not clear he could, given that he has been in charge of West Bank cities for only a few weeks. Palestinian commentators noted that Israel itself failed to curb Hamas in all its years of occupation and that the two suicide bombers last week came from Hebron _ a city still under Israeli control.

All this points to the fact that whether they view Hamas as a terrorist or a political organization, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have no choice but to work together. If Hamas terrorists are allowed to attack again, Arafat could find himself confronting a far less sympathetic Israeli government, while if Israel pushes him into a corner, Hamas will only gain strength.

The challenge is to curb the militants now, and thus speed a peace that could obviate the need for a Hamas.



FEB. 25: Two bombs, one on a bus in Jerusalem and one in the coastal city of Ashkelon.


MARCH 3: Bomb blows up Jerusalem bus on same route as bus attacked a week earlier.


MARCH 4: Bomb in handbag blows up at Tel Aviv's busiest mall on festive Jewish holiday.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.