Hamas leader's triumphal tour spells danger for Yasser Arafat

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's feting by Arab heads of state gives militants new status, writes Deborah Horan
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The Independent Online
AS IF Yasser Arafat didn't have enough to worry about. For two months the Palestinian leader has watched warily as his political rival, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the militant Hamas movement, has been received almost like a head of state in nearly a dozen Muslim countries.

The warm reception for Sheikh Yassin represents a fresh challenge to Mr Arafat's rule. Tired of months without progress in peace talks with Israel, Muslim countries are signalling their dissatisfaction with the hard-line policies of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by playing to their own grumbling opposition.

The danger to Mr Arafat has not been lost on Israel. Israeli officials say they "reserve the right" to prevent Sheikh Yassin, who is said to be collecting millions of dollars in aid, from returning to Gaza. "Obviously anyone who is in a leadership position, particularly among the Palestinians, who calls for the destruction of Israel, is not considered a benevolent phenomenon," said Mr Netayahu's adviser, David Bar-Illan. The irony is that Israel was forced to free Sheikh Yassin after an attempt by Mossad agents to assassinate a Hamas official in Jordan went farcically awry. The Jordanians exchanged the captured Mossad men for the imprisoned Hamas leader.

Palestinian Authority officials play down the threat that Sheikh Yassin's whirlwind tour poses. "I'm not worried at all," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the authority's secretary general. "The Arab states are telling Mr Netanyahu, 'If you destroy the PA and the peace agreements, we will support Hamas.' It's very clear ... [and] this is a good answer to Mr Netanyahu. If he is smart, he will listen."

Reflecting Mr Arafat's obvious concern, the Palestinian government asked Jordan, home to about three million Palestinians, not to grant Sheikh Yassin entry. Lebanon and South Africa have also refused to allow Sheikh Yassin entry - the latter, it is reported, after Mr Arafat got in touch with his good friend President Nelson Mandela to have the sheikh's visa revoked.

Sheikh Yassin's Middle East tour began with a low-key request by the Hamas leader, who is quadriplegic, blind and suffers from ill health, to visit Egypt for medical treatment. In April, Israel gave him permission to leave on a diplomatic passport. From there he went to Saudi Arabia to attend the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Then something unusual occurred. King Fahd and Prince Abdallah asked to see him. Within days, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Yemen had extended invitations.

Next, he went to Kuwait, Syria and the Sudan, where President Khalifa suggested setting up a charity to aid Palestinians in Gaza. Hamas officials say they are trying to set up a meeting with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. From there, say the officials, he may go to Pakistan and Malaysia.

All along, Sheikh Yassin never veered far from typical Hamas rhetoric. He spoke about Israeli aggression, pronounced the Oslo peace agreements dead, reiterated the need to liberate "all of Palestine" and predicted that Israel's destruction would come in the next century. He was careful, however, to avoid open conflict with Mr Arafat. Barbs directed against the Palestinian Authority - not lost on Arab audiences - were made obliquely. In Damascus, for instance, he told reporters that "those who abandon their people's rights are distancing themselves from their people".

But, rhetoric aside, Sheikh Yassin's visit may signal the beginning of the movement's subtle change from a militant rejectionist opposition to an open political party. It is no secret that many of the states that welcomed Sheikh Yassin are battling fundamentalist opposition groups of their own. The strategy of these governments has always been to appease and contain them.

One theory is that they are doing the same with Hamas. "When a revolutionary organisation or a terrorist organisation starts to be part of regional politics, it cannot continue to be revolutionary," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst who directs the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre. "It may be that Hamas is trying to become a political player in the region."

The attention on Sheikh Yassin has boosted Hamas's standing, both at home and abroad. Usually supported by no more than 10 per cent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the most recent poll shows that almost one in four Palestinians sympathize with Hamas, according to Mr Khatib's centre.

Support for Hamas usually mirrors Palestinian backing for the peace process, slumping when negotiations are going well and rising when they fail, as they have done for 15 months. This time, Hamas is interpreting that support, and the grand welcome Sheikh Yassin has received abroad, as backing of its strategy rather than a measure of disillusion with the peace process.

"Hamas is pleased," said Ismail Abu Shanab, one of the movement's leaders in Gaza. "Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is a symbol of resistance and jihad. He has been invited by those countries. This means they give support and legitimacy to this path, which is the path that can stop Mr Netanyahu's aggression and bring back stolen Arab land."