Palestinian police raid Hamas leader's home

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The Independent Online
YASSER ARAFAT'S security services turned up the heat on the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas organisation yesterday in the wake of Thursday's suicide bomb attempt on an Israeli school bus driving through the settlement fringe of the Gaza Strip.

After midnight, Palestinian police raided the home of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas's founder and spiritual leader, in the Sabra district of Gaza City. The wheelchair-bound cleric had been placed under house arrest a few hours earlier.

The police confiscated video-tapes, documents and files, as well as arresting the sheikh's three bodyguards. About 50 policemen, most of them in plain clothes, surrounded his shabby, one-storey house throughout the day, keeping reporters and visitors at bay. His telephone line was cut.

This is the first time Mr Arafat has acted against Sheikh Yassin, who had steadily preached "holy war" against Israel and denounced the Oslo peace process, in the year since the Hamas leader was released after eight years in an Israeli prison.

The school bus bombing, the first attack by Hamas in Gaza since Mr Arafat returned home in 1994, was a challenge he could not ignore. If it had killed dozens of children and not just one soldier, it would have been difficult for Israel to keep to last weekend's Washington agreement to hand over another 13 per cent of the West Bank to Palestinian rule.

Hundreds of activists have been detained in the past two days. Yet the reaction yesterday, in Gaza and the West Bank, was muted. Hamas cancelled a protest rally planned for the West Bank town of Nablus. Mr Arafat's agents, who now control the mosques, have no trouble restraining preachers who might be tempted to deliver inflammatory sermons during Friday prayers.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist, said: "The majority of the public regard themselves as outside this power struggle. The police have arrested Hamas leaders before and hunted their military cells. Hamas's latest campaign may increase their popularity, but only a little bit."

Mr Khatib predicted that Hamas would not risk civil war. "I don't think," he suggested, "their reaction will go beyond non-violent protest."

Israeli experts are not so sure. "In Egypt, Syria and Algeria," argued Gideon Ezra, a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet secret service, "Islamic extremists have not been afraid to fight against Arab governments. Arafat faces a risk that they might hurt him or his people.

"He might fight them even more because he is afraid for his people."

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