Israel: Farewell to Moderation

As Islamic fundamentalists take charge of the Palestinian uprising, the Israelis resort to ever harsher countermeasures

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ten years in an Israeli prison and seven bullet wounds account for Mohammed Jamal's tight grimace, rigid movements and icy stare. Even from a distance, the 36-year-old Palestinian radiates enough danger signals to make Israelis cross to the other side of the street. "We wish we weren't forced to kill Israeli civilians," he says, sitting in a Gaza sandwich shop, fidgeting with a string of worry beads. "But since the army is killing our children, we have to apply Islamic law: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

That fanatical logic was at work last month when three Israeli workers were partially disemboweled in a factory in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, the latest in a series of stabbing and shooting attacks by Palestinians. "The aim of the operation was to pressure the Israeli public," says Jamal, who conceals his real name for fear of arrest. "Now we will increase our military operations."

Jamal is a member of the outlawed Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, meaning zeal in Arabic. Hamas has emerged as the most feared power in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, convincing many Arabs and Jews that the three-year-old intifadeh is entering a far more deadly phase. After the army arrested hundreds of Hamas activists and the government ordered the deportation of four alleged leaders in retaliation for the factory killings, the movement countered by issuing its first call for suicide missions against Israeli targets. That appeal may have motivated Ala' Abdel Latif Obeid, who stabbed three soldiers in Gaza last week and was then shot dead. Says Jamal: "Thanks to God, the Israelis are now afraid."

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir believes the deportations, the first in 15 months, are necessary to satisfy the public's desire for revenge. Despite a United Nations resolution two weeks ago condemning Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinians, Shamir appears far more sensitive to mounting criticism from within the government. "The lives of Israeli citizens in their own independent state are no safer today than the lives of Jews were in the ghettos," charged Sarah Doron, who chairs Likud's Knesset faction. Right-wing legislators demanded that the government deport thousands of "inciters" to Lebanon and bar all Palestinians from working in Israel. Moderates scornfully observed that perhaps Shamir's refusal to accept a territorial compromise had something to do with the bloodshed.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens promised that selective expulsions would reduce Arab violence. But the deployment of more army reinforcements in the territories suggests he knows better. In the first 21 months of the uprising, Israel deported at least 58 Palestinians but stopped when the policy came under fire from the U.S. and the U.N. Those expulsions only caused Palestinians to escalate their revolt. The resumption of deportations indicates that the security forces are running out of tricks: despite more soldiers and roadblocks, more arrests and even undercover snipers in the West Bank to shoot stone throwers, the army is still unable to crush the revolt.

Ironically, Israel once nurtured Islamic fundamentalists as a counterbalance to the more secular Palestine Liberation Organization, declining even to outlaw Hamas until last year. Now army intelligence considers the tight-knit movement, which is much harder to penetrate than the various P.L.O. factions, to be the most serious security threat in the territories.

Hamas' success is a function of Palestinian despair. Preaching radical solutions from the mosques and impressing the population with bold attacks against Israelis, Hamas is rapidly winning converts at the expense of the P.L.O., which has been weakened by the gulf crisis and by the failure of Chairman Yasser Arafat's diplomatic overtures to win any concessions from Israel.

Hamas also caters to its constituency on the day-to-day level by running clinics and kindergartens; by contrast, the P.L.O. has a reputation for corruption in distributing funds to the territories. Although the P.L.O. remains the dominant force in Palestinian politics, its half a dozen or so clandestine factions in the West Bank and Gaza are often at odds, while the Islamic movement is highly disciplined and cohesive. Hamas has benefited from the religious fury generated by the deaths of at least 17 Palestinians during the October riot on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, as well as from the growing strength of Islamic parties in Jordan and Algeria, where Saddam Hussein's appeals to Islamic unity have found a ready audience. By most estimates, Hamas commands support from a majority among Gazans and at least 30% of West Bank Arabs. As Labor party member Ora Namir warned the government, "You didn't want to talk with the P.L.O., so now you'll have to talk with Hamas."

That may be impossible. Formed at the start of the intifadeh as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas calls for an Islamic state in both Israel and the occupied territories, blames Jews for World War II and insists that "there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except for Holy War." Hamas' initial goal — to prevent peace between Israel and the Palestinians — should not be difficult.

In fact, Hamas' militancy suits Israel's ruling rejectionists just fine, providing a convenient excuse to avoid negotiations. The few moderates left on both sides are now endangered by an alarming spiral of violence. As tougher Israeli measures further inflame the uprising, more and more Palestinians will undoubtedly resort to arms, convincing Israelis that still harsher tactics are in order. Says Sa'id al Kanoua, 15, whose father is among the deportees: "The Israelis have made me hate them even more." The sons and daughters of Hamas' Jewish victims feel every bit as enraged.