Hamas chief says revenge attacks are the only defence

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The Independent Online
Israel and the US say Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is at last clamping down on Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation behind most of the suicide bomb attacks. But Dr Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, reveals that suicide bombs are the Palestinians' only effective weapon against Israel, though for the moment he counsels Hamas members to be patient.

The sound of the kiss echoed around Israel like a gunshot. Last month every Israeli newspaper pictured Dr Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a founder of Hamas and one of its principal leaders, being kissed on the cheek by Mr Arafat.

"It was a routine kiss, not a political one," says Dr Rantisi, a 50-year- old paediatrician, his dark beard flecked with white, in an interview with The Independent as he sat in the forecourt of his house in Khan Younis at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. "It was a Palestinian unity conference. Arafat also kissed other delegates."

But Dr Rantisi knows that there is more to it than that. Since he was released from an Israeli jail in January, he has been the effective leader of Hamas in the occupied territories. And the precise distance between Hamas and Mr Arafat is of consuming interest to Israel and the United States because it is Hamas whose suicide bombs, again and again since 1994, have determined relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Dr Rantisi is quick to disclaim - and this is accepted by Israel and the US - that he has no operational knowledge of suicide bombings. But it is he who ultimately determines if the bombing campaign goes ahead or is called off.

Despite the arrest of some 70 Hamas members in Gaza and the West Bank, and the closure of Hamas clinics and social centres, on the insistence of Israel and the US, Dr Rantisi makes clear that the bombings, which he refers to as "operations", will go on.

His justification for the suicide attacks is simple enough. He says the Palestinians and the Arab world are as weak as at any time in their history. Only suicide bombings redress the balance. He says: "Every Palestinian knows that, without revenge attacks, massacres like that at Hebron [when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the mosque in 1994], would happen more often."

He speaks also of the assassination of Yahyah Ayyash, the chief Hamas bomb-maker, by Israel in Gaza as justifying the suicide bombs which killed 58 Israelis last year.

In the more immediate future Dr Rantisi, speaking what he calls "Egyptian English", which he learnt as a trainee doctor in Alexandria in the 1960s, seems to hint at a curtailment of attacks. He says: "Any kind of conflict between Palestinians will be disastrous." In reacting to the arrests and closures of Hamas institutions he says: "We will be patient."

Israel claims he has received an amber if not a red light from Mr Arafat against more attacks.

Hamas is certainly under heavy pressure from the Palestinian Authority. Formed in early 1988, it grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and its network of supporters in the mosques and Islamic social institutions. Israel has always held that these form "an infrastructure" from which the suicide bombers ultimately come. In the past week Mr Arafat has closed 16 Islamic institutions in Gaza, on which some 50 - 60,000 poorer Gazans relied for relief.

Dr Rantisi says: "They are destroying the infrastructure not of Hamas, but of the Palestinian people." He doesn't think the present clamp down will damage Hamas politically and this is confirmed by local observers.

One, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "Palestinian public opinion has a different attitude this year to the suicide bombings than it did last. Then many people said to Hamas: `You are destroying our future'. Now they say: `What are we getting out of this ridiculous peace process?' "

At the same time Hamas is a less powerful organisation than it used to be in Gaza. This is mainly the result of mass arrests after the suicide bombs which made Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister in 1996. Some 1,200 Hamas members were arrested by Mr Arafat's men. It lost control of many mosques whose imams must now be licensed by the Palestinian Authority. It no longer has its old influence in Gaza's Islamic university.

Dr Rantisi is philosophical about this, having spent much of the past nine years in prison as well as one year as a deportee in Lebanon. He says the Palestinians and the Arabs are in a peculiarly weak position, arguing that it was a bad moment for Mr Arafat to negotiate the Oslo accords with Israel. He adds: "One day people will say there used to be a great power called America. Everything changes."

In practice the calculations of Hamas are probably more immediate. Like other Palestinian political groups they are preparing themselves for the day Mr Arafat dies.

They also probably calculate that Mr Netanyahu does not intend to implement the Interim Agreement phase of the Oslo accord, signed by the previous Israeli government in 1995, under which Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank. Therefore, Israel will never offer Mr Arafat a big enough reward to repeat the mass arrests - in effect internment without trial - of Hamas supporters which he carried out last year.

It is very unlikely that Hamas will abandon suicide bombing. It is a cheap and horribly effective way of using its Islamic commitment to determine relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Nor is its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassem, likely to lack the means to carry out attacks.

A suicide bomber requires only a willingness to kill himself and a minimum of equipment, training and military support. He does not really require the "infrastructure" which Israel is insisting that Mr Arafat dismantle. And, as Dr Rantisi points out, in the shanty towns of Gaza and the West Bank, there are thousands of bitter young Palestinians who have little enough to live for.