Arafat arrests 120 in crackdown on Hamas

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The Independent Online


Under intense pressure from Israel, Palestinian security forces have arrested 120 members of Hamas, which carried out Sunday's bombings in Gaza and the West Bank, but Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is resisting demands for a general round-up of the organisation.

Yesterday, Palestinian officials tentatively identified the two suicide bombers who killed 25 Israelis in Jerusalem and Ashkelon when they exploded bombs strapped to their bodies. They were Majdi Abu Wardeh, 19, and Ibrahim Sarahneh, 26, from in a refugee camp in the West Bank. Their bodies were too badly mutilated by the blasts to be identified, but Abu Wardeh left behind a photograph of himself with the words "Farewell, Izzedine al-Qassim Brigades" written on the back. Izzedine al-Qassim is the military wing of Hamas. Sarahneh, believed to have blown up the No 18 bus in Jerusalem, had worked as a construction worker in Israel, but was unemployed for the past year.

Al-Fawwar is a dusty camp housing 7,000 people five miles west of Hebron, most of the refugees originally coming from Kiryat Gat in Israel. It had a reputation for militancy during the Palestinian intifada (uprising). Maryam Sarahneh, the mother of the bomber, said Israeli troops raided her house on Monday night, arresting her three other sons and taking photographs and documents.

Israeli security says that the Izzedine al-Qassim cell which organised the latest bombings is based in Gaza, but the operation was carried out from Hebron. Both men were dressed as Israeli soldiers. Israel is to give Mr Arafat a list of 10 names of Hamas leaders it wants arrested, notably Gaza-based Mohammed Deif, believed to be the brains behind the attacks.

Hamas, of which the Izzedine al-Qassim brigades are only a small part, appears divided about what it should do next. Even its leaflet claiming the bombing attacks on Sunday has an apologetic, almost pleading tone, insisting: "We are not murderers and not terrorists." It adds that if Israel were serious about peace it would release Hamas prisoners and stop hunting down its militants. If this were done then Hamas would be worried by "every drop of bloodshed."

It was not a good moment to ask the Israeli government for a truce. But the offer does show that Hamas is ambivalent. It makes no Palestinian national demands but speaks only of the security of Hamas members, in prison and out. It is probably to be taken seriously because talks in Cairo between Hamas leaders and Mr Arafat last month collapsed because he could not guarantee their safety from Israeli attack.

The intentions of Hamas are important because they may decide who wins the Israeli election on 29 May. Labour party strategists think Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, might still get a majority, but only if there are no more suicide bombs. If there are and he loses the election, then the Oslo peace accords may unravel.

The reaction of the government was to demand that Mr Arafat crush the infrastructure of Hamas. Karmi Gilon, the former head of the Shin Bet, said: "Arafat is taking measures against suicide bombers who are en route to carry out attacks in Israel, and he tries to eliminate suicide attacks, but he is not putting enough pressure on the Hamas leadership."

Mr Arafat made it clear to diplomats in Gaza that he has no intention of pursuing the whole of Hamas. His strategy so far is to pursue the Izzedine al-Qassim militants, harass Hamas politicians and try to split the organisation. Before Sunday the strategy seemed to be working. Mr Arafat's strategy will not impress Israeli voters. He probably believes, however, that he has no alternative.