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Hamas makes it to centrestage.

IT IS ONE of the finer ironies that Israel has succeeded through its much-publicised December deportation of over 400 Palestinian Islamists in "de-demonising" those whom it invariably portrays as "terrorist fanatics". At the same stroke it has brought to a halt the bitter and often violent feuding between the two main contenders for power in the Occupied Territories, Yasser Arafat's Fateh movement and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

The infighting reached its height last summer in an outburst of violence which approached civil war proportions in the Gaza Strip. As recently as November, Arafat had likened Hamas to the Zulu Inkatha movement in South Africa. Pacts between the two groups patiently negotiated over the years always failed to stick.

The rivalry grew in intensity as Hamas increased its strength, posing a serious challenge to the PLO's claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and heading the opposition to the Washington peace talks. As the negotiations dragged on, the nationalists' failure to secure any convincing advances in the quest for peace worked to the advantage of the Islamists. Hamas' unswerving rejection of the talks became a focus for the large numbers of Gazans and West Bankers increasingly disenchanted with a programme which was seen to represent a sell-out of Palestinian rights.

However, Arafat's direct attack on Hamas (his Inkatha charge) was abruptly dropped with the expulsions. Outrage at Israel's disregard for Palestinian human rights and international conventions forced the PLO, and its internal leadership in the Occupied Territories, to take the lead in diplomatic action on behalf of their chief opponents.

Hamas thus found itself as the unlikely hero of the hour. In spectacular contrast to the hostile press normally accorded to Islamist movements throughout the region, Hamas - thanks to Yitzhak Rabin - won itself the prize of international publicity, figuring under such bizarre rubrics as "the Lost Tribe" Every detail was shown of the suffering of the band of devout Muslims stoically accepting their fate in a freezing no man's land. Even support within Israel began to waver as the repercussions of the action started to sink in. The Hamas spokesman, Abdul Aziz al Rantisi, capped this public relations coup by wishing the Western world a happy Christmas in English over the sound waves of the international media.

Hamas' position as a serious player in the Palestinian political game is no longer in doubt. Although it is widely seen as a newcomer to the political scene, its formation at the start of the intifada was the logical outcome of years of careful planning and development. The growth of the movement falls into three distinct phases.

The first phase was the achievement of its founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, in establishing a political and social power base for the Gaza branch of the Society of Muslim Brothers. The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the late 1920s by Hassan al Banna, rapidly acquired a huge following and began to extend its activities abroad. In Palestine, the movement played a part in the 1948 war, establishing cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Brotherhood viewed the question of Palestine in its broader Islamic context. The goal was to restore Palestine to its place in a wider Islamic state, but this would not occur until the region had been returned to the true path of Islam. Jihad was thus to be deferred until Islamic values had been re-established.

As part of the process of re-Islamisation, Sheikh Yasin laid down an impressive infrastructure of religious, social and welfare institutions. In 1973 he founded the Islamic Centre (Al Mujamma Al Islami), which was to become the principal vehicle for the Brotherhood's activities in Gaza, operating legally under the licence which it later received from Israel.

From the late 1970s, the Brotherhood grew in importance, funded from the Gulf and encouraged by Israel as a check to the nationalist movement, then at its height. Support for the Islamists was also boosted by a chain of regional events. The most important of these was the Iranian revolution of 1979, which was followed by the assassination of President Sadat (by Egyptian Islamists) and the fierce Muslim resistance to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. During this period, the nationalists' image suffered as the PLO stumbled from disaster to disaster.

Throughout this first phase of the Brotherhood's development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its political energies were directed at competing for influence with the nationalists, in an attempt to replace their secular ideas with Islamic virtues, rather than in confronting the Israeli occupation.

However, Sheikh Yasin was already well aware that the Brotherhood stood charged with lack of patriotism, in contrast with the active anti-Israel stance of the nationalists. During the 1980s the charges were accentuated by the acclaim won by a group of activists who had split from the ranks of the Brotherhood itself, the Islamic Jihad. The group gained huge popularity for a series of daring armed exploits against Israeli targets in the years leading up to intifada.

The uprising of December 1987 made it clear that the Brotherhood could no longer remain aloof from the mass protest against the occupation. Yasin and his colleagues seized the moment radically to reverse the Brotherhood's agenda by setting up the Islamic Resistance Movement (later to be known by its acronym, Hamas) as the Brotherhood's activist arm. The Brothers, by remaining at one remove, could ensure their individual independence and guarantee their immunity should the uprising, and their involvement in it, backfire.

Thus the Brotherhood entered a second phase, in which it replaced its former priority of the redemption of society by that of confrontation with Israel. Hamas was able to draw on the Brotherhood's considerable ability to enforce its own strike days and resistance agenda. It cooperated with, but never joined, the intifada leadership, reserving for itself the role of loyal opposition.

Hamas has consistently opposed the PLO's policy of accommodation with Israel. At the same time, it has demanded representation at the PLO's supreme body, the Palestine National Council - a demand which has not been met due to an over-ambitious demand for a 40% share of the seats. Several of its leaders have also let it be known that, while not acknowledging Israel, Hamas would adopt a pragmatic stance with regard to any liberated territory.

Sheikh Yasin's imprisonment in 1989 did not impede Hamas' growth. With its loose, decentralised structure and its effective leadership inside the country, it has not only been able to withstand waves of arrests, but to develop into a third more militant phase.

As a consequence of the Gulf war and the Gulf states' displeasure at the PLO's backing of Saddam Hussein, Hamas benefitted from additional financing from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. More recently, Iran added to Hamas' fortunes, according to it diplomatic status, funding and, according to PLO sources, providing military training for its cadres. The rapid advance of Islamist movements in the Arab world also enhanced the status of Hamas.

The result on the ground has been an increase in organised armed attacks against Israeli targets, in contrast to the random acts of violence carried out in the name of Hamas in the early years of the intifada. A second development was to establish official spokesmen for the organisation in Jordan.

A third and most significant departure was to set up a tactical alliance with all Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process. The most important of these has been the common front struck with nationalist groups within the PLO itself: the Popular Front led by George Habash and the Nayef Hawatmeh faction of the Democratic Front. As the leading group in this broad opposition to the Madrid peace process, Hamas positioned itself to gain support beyond its Islamist constituency, as well as to win more people to its cause, should the peace talks fail to bear fruit.

There is now, however, a question mark over what has seemed to be Hamas' unstoppable rise. Yitzhak Rabin selected with care those whom he expelled from Israel. Unlike previous rounds of arrests, the 415 deportees included in their number virtually every political leader of note both in Gaza and the West Bank. It is too soon to predict how resilient the movement will prove to be in the wake of a purge of such magnitude.

Hamas will be helped by its well-organised cell-like structure and its creation of an effective diplomatic and political arm abroad. The attacks which provoked the December deportations - the gunning-down of Israeli soldiers in brazen attacks in Gaza and Hebron, and the kidnap and murder of a border policeman - followed in early January by the assassination of a Shin Bet officer, testify both to the effectiveness of Hamas' military wing and to the zeal of its members.

These events can only add to the list of eager new recruits drawn both by Hamas' Islamic probity and the patriotic image it has forged for itself. And, if the peace process continues to falter, it can be assured of the growing support of the discontented rank and file. Israel may have struck too late to deal a lethal blow at the creature which it originally nurtured.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Islamic Hamas movement
Author:Kristianasen, Wendy
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Portents of disorder.
Next Article:No choice but to talk.

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