New Calls by Hamas Militants to Target the U.S.

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Commanders of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement elected to power in the Palestinian territories earlier this year, are locked in a fierce debate over whether to launch terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in the Middle East. Despite its anti-American rhetoric, Hamas has until now refrained from any known terror strikes against the U.S. — only Israel is in its bomb sights, Hamas says. That position has been reinforced by the argument of more moderate elements in Hamas that if the movement acted in a reasonable manner, the U.S. and Europe would eventually be persuaded to release funds and foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority blocked last March after Hamas assumed office.

But within Hamas, the argument may be tipping the other way. In furtive, underground meetings held in the West Bank and Gaza, a growing number of Hamas commanders say they are running out of patience with the U.S. and want to strike back. Insiders say the radicals are trying to exploit the exasperation within the movement at what they perceive as the Bush Administration's one-sided support of Israel and its attempts to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the Hamas cabinet.

The radicals gained ground after a visit to the Middle East earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who tried to rally "moderate" Arab regimes into a united front against Iran, Hamas and the Lebanese militia Hizballah. "The U.S. has become very hostile to the Palestinians," one Hamas field commander told TIME. "We shouldn't stand by idly while the Americans are plotting against us."

Israeli intelligence sources say they are aware of the debate within Hamas over whether to target U.S. interests in the region. An Israeli intelligence official says that for now, Hamas's thinking seems to be: "One enemy — Israel — is enough. Let others in Iraq and Afghanistan take on the Great Satan."

Such restraint may crumble if Abbas moves, as he is expected to do in the coming weeks, to dismiss the Hamas government — a move that would be seen by most Palestinians as doing Washington's bidding, and might tip the balance inside the Hamas leadership strongly in favor of the more extreme faction. That would likely involve a retreat from Democratic politics and a reemphasis on terrorism, in which the movement may not confine its targets to Israelis. In this scenario, Hamas would likely seek support from Iran and international jihadists, whose anti-American agendas might increasingly shape Hamas's own. Israeli officials say Iran recently offered to train Hamas in the weapons and tactics used to such lethal effect by the Hizballah fighters who held their own against Israeli forces in Lebanon over the summer. Israel's Shin Bet security service also claims that Hamas had smuggled over 19 tons of explosives into Gaza.

Jihadi culture is also taking root in the Palestinian territories, with the Bush Administration routinely denounced in apocalyptic tones during Friday prayers at mosques throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and recordings of Jihadi songs and chants selling briskly at West Bank bazaars. Westerners also face a growing risk of kidnapping, and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem has warned that Americans traveling in the Palestinian territories are no longer safe. The consulate in mid-August issued kidnap warnings for Gaza and the West Bank after the abduction of two Fox News reporters. On Wednesday, kidnappers struck again: an American aid worker, Michael Philips, 24, from Louisiana was kidnapped from Nablus by a new gang calling itself Jaish al-Sunna (the "Sunni Army") which demanded the release of Palestinian women and minors from Israeli prisons. Palestinian security police freed Phillips, but the identity of his captors is still unknown. According to both Israeli and Palestinian police sources, there is no evidence linking the kidnappers with Hamas or any other known militant group. But as the economic squeeze tightens in the territories, more and more Palestinians are blaming the U.S. for their woes — and are wanting to hit back.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv