Inside Hamas

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SUNGSU CHO/POLARIS FOR TIME

THE FACE OF TERROR: Hamas operatives like these activists lead lives so secret that their militant identities are often hidden from their own families

We waited on the beach to meet a killer. The man we had come to see carried out murder operations for Hamas, the militant organization bent on reclaiming all of historic Palestine from Israel. We parked our car in a designated spot so his watchers could check that we hadn't been tailed. As the sun dipped into the sea lapping the Gaza Strip on a steamy night last June, the killer was cooling off with a swim. For a wanted man, he seemed rather audacious, relaxing unarmed on the crowded seashore. But though he appeared at ease, he took meticulous precautions against Israeli agents. Two bodyguards drifted over to surround him while he toweled off and dressed, and then they climbed into the backseat of our car beside him. We were told to switch on the air-conditioner so the windows would turn opaque with steam as he explained why he had chosen to live an assassin's life. "It's not a hobby to kill, you know," said Mohammed, which, of course, was not his real name. "When we attack, the voice of the Palestinians is heard. We are sending a message to say, 'We are here.' If we stop, no one will care about us."

The killer had an attractive, open face and an engaging manner. But he was unwavering in his convictions and certain that his cause would prevail in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered no apologies for all the deaths Hamas has caused in more than a decade of armed struggle or for the collapse of every attempt to negotiate a peace. Hamas, he said, had "evened the balance of terror," and he would keep killing Israelis "until God decides."


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His end came quickly. Two months after I met Mohammed, the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv printed a deck of cards showing 34 Hamas leaders targeted for assassination. Mohammed, his face a blank silhouette, was the jack of spades, No. 9 on the list. Two days later, an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship located Mohammed's walkie-talkie as he sat in a car about 100 yards from where I had met him. "It was his one hobby, to swim," Mohammed's brother later told me. "His fate was to die by the sea." The helicopter launched at least three Hellfire missiles as the four men in the car tried to flee. Afterward, there was little of Mohammed to bury besides his head. His real name, I learned, was Ahmed Ishtawi, a top commander in Hamas' clandestine military wing, dead at age 24.

Nothing Israel has done — not the incursions, demolitions, lockdowns, land confiscations or even what are called "targeted assassinations," like the strike on Ishtawi — has broken the will of Hamas. The target list grows longer, not shorter. Last week the Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attempted to deliver Hamas the most punishing blow yet, by approving the assassination of the group's founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. For Israel, the killing of Yassin, 66--a quadriplegic who was being wheeled out of his neighborhood mosque in Gaza City after dawn prayers on Monday when he was obliterated by an Israeli missile — was a long-overdue hit on the supreme leader of a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli citizens. But the killing provoked a torrent of rage among Palestinians that rippled through the Arab world. Yassin's successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, vowed, "We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere." And to much of the world, the depravity of the conflict was highlighted by the televised images of a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Nablus, where a semi-retarded 16-year-old boy strapped with explosives was apprehended by Israeli police just before he would have blown himself up.

Sharon is intent on reshaping the conflict to suit Israel's design. Eliminating Yassin was a tactical show of strength as the Prime Minister embarked on a plan for unilateral "disengagement" from the Palestinians, a strategy driven by his refusal to seek a negotiated peace as long as Yasser Arafat leads them. Sharon has announced plans to evacuate most of the 7,500 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip by as early as next year and build a West Bank security barrier that would leave the Palestinians to fend for themselves on the other side. Sharon and the Bush Administration are worried that Israel's unilateral withdrawal will be greeted as a reward for terrorism. The militants of Hamas certainly scent in it a victory for their policy of violence, the only language that they believe Israel understands. And so before Israel goes, Sharon's aides say, he believes he must smash Hamas to show Palestinians — and right-wing Israelis — that he isn't just running away. "We have to fight terrorism," Sharon told reporters last week. "Until then, nothing else can be achieved."

But in the short term, few expect that the killing of Yassin will do anything to deter Hamas, which derives most of its power not from individual leaders but from the appeal of its ideas to a generation of despairing Palestinians. Even before Yassin's death provided them with a fresh excuse for armed attacks, leaders of Hamas were predicting that in advance of the Gaza pullout their militants would step up attacks on Israeli forces and against the Israeli homeland.

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