The boys wear their best soccer shirts to the mosque for Friday services. They sit apart from the crowd, their attention fixed on Sheik Hassan Yussef. "The future belongs to us," he cries, his baritone breaking as he yells through the rough, sandstone hall of the Mosque al-Ain. "God will grant victory to the Muslims." The crowd spills outside, spreading prayer mats over the lawn. When he finishes his sermon, the 45-year-old sheik is soaked in sweat. Older worshipers drift away in the midday heat, but the youngsters linger in the shade of the minaret. They are captives of charisma, as the sheik well knows. "They trust me."
Yussef is foremost in a new generation rising to the top of Hamas, the Islamic Fundamentalist Group. More radical than the traditional leadership, they are highly critical of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and they press for more violent confrontation with Israel. Though Hamas has had two disastrous years at the hands of the Palestinian and Israeli security services, Israel is once more on high alert for terrorist attack, fearing Hamas will try to kidnap soldiers before the Jewish New Year this weekend.
The founding leaders of Hamas, like Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 64, refuse to accept the notion of the peace process. But from their base in Gaza, under Arafat's nose, they are less critical of the Palestinian President's corrupt regime or its compromises with Israel than are the younger men. These energetic leaders of the West Bank have emerged as the new radicals. For a Hamas sheik, the bronze replica of the Dome of the Rock on Jamal Salim's coffee table is standard. Not so the aerobic treadmill in the living room of his simple Nablus home. Palestinian security sources say Yussef and Salim recommend youngsters they see at their mosques as recruits to Hamas' military wing. The student councils at all but one of the Palestinian universities are dominated by Hamas. Sheik Jamal Mansour, 37, a Hamas leader from Nablus, continues to advise his young supporters daily, even from his cell in Arafat's Juneid Prison.
Until recently, Israeli security chiefs were confident they had Hamas on the run. In the last two years, a series of leaders of Izzaddin al-Kassam, Hamas' military wing, were assassinated or captured. There are more than 1,000 Hamas activists in Israeli and Palestinian jails. But the intended coup de grāce turned out to be a moment that profoundly undermined Israeli confidence. Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, believed by the Israelis to be the last significant military leader on the loose, eluded a major army dragnet. Three Israeli soldiers were killed last month in an attempt to nab him. Israel said they died in a friendly-fire mix-up. Hamas claimed the soldiers as Abu Hanoud's kills. Though Abu Hanoud turned himself in to Palestinian police, the Israeli deaths were fine fodder for Yussef and his fiery colleagues.
Palestinian security chiefs sense that Hamas is wise to the infiltration of informers that has led to so many successful operations against the Islamic group. Palestinian intelligence sources tell TIME that Hamas is cutting back on links between its operatives, making it harder for Arafat's men to gain broad information. Hizballah has stepped up its training of Hamas fighters in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Others are being trained near the Iranian town of Qom. In all, Palestinian security sources estimate that some 15 future terrorists are learning their deadly trade in Iran and Lebanon right now. "Hizballah and Iran will invest to upgrade the Islamic Palestinian groups," says Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's West Bank security chief. A leader of Hamas' military wing, who met secretly with Time, confirms the assistance of Hizballah. He adds that Hamas is turning away from its attacks on Israeli cities. Instead, he says, Hamas will hit Israeli soldiers and settlers.
In Asira a-Shamaliya, the village near Nablus where Abu Hanoud eluded the Israelis, graffiti sprayed in green and red in the central square read, "Abu Hanoud chose the road of all honorable people. Praise the hero of the battles." Israeli troops demolished the house on the edge of the village where Abu Hanoud was ambushed as he prepared to visit his mother for tea. A child's plastic toy gun pokes from the rubble. If the youngster who left it behind listens to the men in the mosques, he will one day carry a real weapon.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Nablus and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem