Radicals On The Rise

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You'd think it would be easy to put a frail, 65-year-old quadriplegic under house arrest. But it's never been harder to quell the activists of Hamas. When armed police from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority moved in to surround the Gaza City home of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the movement whose name means zeal, calls rang from the loudspeakers of local mosques, "Go and rescue Sheik Yassin!" The security men were greeted with a hail of stones and occasional gunfire from several thousand defiant Hamas loyalists determined to show Arafat, just like Israel, how much they have become a force to be reckoned with.

In the past 14 months of the second Palestinian uprising, no group has benefited from the failure of diplomacy and the rise of violence as much as Hamas. The militant Islamist movement that takes responsibility for 19 of the 36 suicide bombings that have claimed 91 victims since September 2000 is riding a wave of support from despairing Palestinians for its unrelenting vigor in striking back against Israel. In polls, its popularity outstrips that of Arafat's mainstream party, its young men flock eagerly to the call of martyrdom, and its latest round of murderous assaults may prove the final death blow to a peace process the group has long sought to kill, believing as it does that Israel is an alien entity on Islamic land that must be destroyed.

After Hamas bombers claimed 25 victims in Israel last week, the isolation of Yassin made a good show of a crackdown, but little more. The infirm cleric in his white robes, confined to a wheelchair since a teenage sports accident paralyzed his limbs, speaks in a soprano pitch so soft a listener can barely hear him. But for years his fiery exhortations preaching eternal warfare until Israel is driven into the sea made him the dominant figure in an organization that turned his words into action. Now he is largely a figurehead. He presides over Hamas' sprawling social services and sets its intransigent political tone. He's revered for his spiritual guidance and daily rallying of the faithful. But the days in which he used to press the button and send supporters to carry out operations are gone.

That responsibility has been grabbed by a variety of other hands. The deadly business of Hamas is run by its shadowy military wing. Only the most dedicated and disciplined are allowed into the tight little cells that carry out attacks. Perhaps 200-men strong, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, named for a Muslim preacher who died leading a revolt against Jewish immigration in the 1930s, does the dirty work, plotting actions against Israeli troops and civilians. Hamas operations include kidnappings of soldiers and drive-by shootings, but those exploding human bombs are the spearhead of the group's campaign.

These days, Hamas doesn't need to recruit suicide bombers; there are almost too many volunteers. Men embittered by years of misery and humiliation gather at the feet of a new generation of Hamas preachers like the charismatic Sheik Hassan Yussef. His Friday sermons, full of mythic stories of great Islamic battles but also highly critical of Arafat's corrupt regime and its compromises with Israel, urge them toward violent confrontation with the Jews. As Hamas leaders like Yussef tell their adherents, Palestinians may not have tanks or gunships, but they have one thing Israel doesn't: men willing to blow themselves up for their cause.

Now, though, according to Palestinian security officials, Hamas has acquired a potent new conventional weapon. Some months ago, according to these sources, Iranian-backed operatives of the Lebanese militant group Hizballah bought or stole a North Korean-designed rocket from Syrian soldiers and passed it on to Hamas. The weapon was smuggled into the Gaza Strip, where a special Hamas engineering unit was set up to replicate it. At the end of October, Hamas launched the first of its Qassam 1 rockets toward an Israeli town. The attack was a dud; the rocket landed in an empty field. But with a range of 3 miles--much longer than the mortars Hamas currently fires at nearby Israeli settlements--the Qassam 1 would add a frightening new dimension to its campaign of violence. Israeli intelligence officials refer to the rocket as a "new Katyusha," potentially capable of spreading the same kind of chaos inside Israel that Hizballah used to provoke when it fired those Russian-made rockets from Lebanon.

Israel has tried and failed to decapitate Hamas, and that task, should he take it on, would be no easier for Arafat. There is no mastermind without whom the military apparatus falls apart. After all, its actions are cheap and simple and take no special genius: hit-and-run attacks on Israeli soldiers, suicide bombings. So whenever one set of leaders is assassinated or rounded up, it's easy for another to take its place. In the past few months, Hamas has instituted a multitiered system of automatic replacements, borrowed from the communist underground of the 1950s. In each city or rural area, Hamas sets up three leadership groups: if the first team is killed, a second immediately takes its place, then a third. It takes some time for Israeli and Palestinian intelligence to figure out the successions. After Israel wiped out the two top Hamas men in the West Bank city of Nablus last summer, a local Palestinian Authority official complained to Arafat that he couldn't identify the new chain of command to deal with.

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