Hard Times for Hamas

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How effective have the Israelis been in disrupting the terror network of Hamas, the militant group responsible for most of the bomb attacks in Israel this year? Quite effective, it appears. Israeli intelligence officials tell TIME that since the start last spring of the West Bank offensive known as Operation Defensive Shield, 98% of the members of Hamas' military wing who are known to them in the area have been killed or arrested—a total of 70 men. With the Israeli army still in or around every West Bank town, it's no longer possible for cells to organize across different areas. They have to form and operate locally, which strains human resources. And with the crackdown's having removed so many leaders of the Izzedine al-Qassam military wing, political leaders who were not previously involved in terror attacks have been forced to fill the gap. One is Abdel Khaleq Natshe, 48, who headed the Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron. After Defensive Shield, Israeli officials and Palestinian sources say, Natshe began providing funding and coordination for Izzedine al-Qassam. They say Natshe was behind an April attack on the Israeli settle-ment of Adora, in which Hamas gunmen shot four Israelis. Natshe was finally arrested by Israeli soldiers two weeks ago in Hebron.

The blows against Hamas have prompted a debate in its ranks. Many of its activists are urging a temporary halt to terror attacks, fearing the group could be wiped out as a political as well as a military force. But others, particularly Hamas leaders based outside the West Bank and Gaza, argue that it's more important than ever to show Israel that it can't stop Hamas. Some Hamas chiefs are worried that the debate could turn into a full-blown power struggle if the health of spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin continues to decline. Top Hamas officials tell TIME the quadriplegic Yassin, a unifying figure for moderates and hard-liners, was hospitalized last week with lung and bowel problems.