Hamas builds support for destruction of Israel: Sarah Helm visits occupied Gaza City and speaks to a Palestinian leader whose quiet tones belie his religious zeal and deadly purpose in the cause of Islam

CONFINED under curfew to his home in Gaza City, Hassan Deeb was yesterday thankful that he was not among the 400- odd Palestinians dumped in no man's land between the Lebanese and Israeli armies.

He might have been. A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Hassan Deeb has been arrested before. He spent 45 days in jail when Israel rounded up Hamas supporters after the arrest of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in 1989. Many of his friends were among the deportees, including imams from his mosque.

Mr Deeb, a science teacher in a United Nations school in Gaza, who studied zoology and geology at Cairo University, lives in an apartment with his wife and nine children on the edge of Gaza City. Curled pictures of the Dome of the Rock and Abraham in Mecca line the walls. In one direction is the stormy grey Mediterranean, the sand-dunes strewn with rubbish from the Beach Camp refugee camp. In the other is a military base, and a look- out tower.

Mr Deeb came to Gaza in 1948, aged five, after the Israelis expelled his family from the village of Jibna, 10 miles up the coast in Israel. 'I have taken my sons back to see the foundations, so they don't forget,' he says. He has always been a devout follower of Islam, and wears a traditional white crocheted cap. Like so many Hamas activists in the occupied territories, Mr Deeb does not look like a militant, sitting wrapped in a dressing-gown to keep out the cold, his round jovial countenance breaking into frequent grins as he tries out his pidgin English.

Nor does he sound like a militant, as he describes how Islam has gained through the social support of the mosques. There is a quiet, simple certainty about his exposition of the case for Hamas. But talking to him is disconcerting. For that quiet tone does not change, whether he is speaking about giving food to the poor, or fighting for the destruction of Israel. 'Israel only has another 10 years before it will be destroyed,' he says, without raising or modulating his voice.

The ideology is very clear. Article 7 of the Hamas Covenant says the movement is a link in the chain of jihad (holy war) against the 'Zionist invasion'. It is working 'to unfurl the banner of Allah over every centimetre of Palestine'.

The Islamic movement has always had a strong presence in the Gaza Strip. Mr Deeb says it was not active before 1967, when the Strip was under Egyptian control. 'Muslim organisations were prohibited by the pan-Arabists of Abdel Nasser,' he says. 'There was little activity in the mosques in those days. They were just places of worship. The Egyptians used to arrest and torture the Muslim activists more than the Jews,' he recalled.

After 1967, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Muslims enjoyed new freedom. 'Israel gave people freedom of worship, thinking if they were preoccupied with religion they would have less time for resistance. At the same time they no doubt thought the Islamic movement would be useful competition with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation).'

In the 1970s the PLO factions, led by Fatah, dominated resistance in Gaza. But the influence of the mosques was growing. 'The PLO is a secular movement. People affiliated with the PLO prayed in the mosques. But the factions never used them as a centre of activity.'

Between 1970 and 1980 the number of mosques in Gaza quadrupled. There are now 240. 'The mosque is not only a mosque but a club, a social place. We even have a library with all sorts of books. and it is an undeclared centre of resistance.' Mr Deeb says the jihad element of the teaching, which he translates as 'liberation', started to play a more dominant role in the mosque-teaching in Gaza under Sheikh Yassin, jailed for life in 1989.

Sheikh Yassin lived nearby in what is little more than a shack in the Beach refugee camp. He taught Arabic and religion in a school supported by the Israeli government, and was an imam in the Shemali Mosque in Beach Camp. 'He was very charismatic. His message was very different. He had a very modern way of interpreting the Koran. The traditionalists talked of the call to prayer and the pilgrimage. He talked about Islamic jihad and the need for mobility and change.'

Sheikh Yassin went on to set up the Islamic Compound, where the movement expanded its organisation, and the Islamic Aid Society, which ran clubs, children's nurseries and other ventures.

At the same time, support for the PLO was beginning to fall off, says Mr Deeb. 'People started becoming more relgious, to fast and to pray. Why? I say it was Allah. Divine intervention,' he smiles.

'But there are other reasons. People had trusted their future to the secular factions and gained nothing. There was no hope of liberation and people noticed that if they gave money to these people they spent it on themselves. The Muslims shared the money with the people. 'There was a process of building our infrastructure before we became armed and created Hamas.'

Hamas was formed shortly after the beginning of the intifada in 1987. Since then it has competed openly with the PLO on the streets for popular support. In addition to the religious pull, Hamas had another key advantage over the PLO. Its leadership was inside the occupied territories, close to the people. The PLO activists were always looking to Yasser Arafat in Tunis. Some estimates say Hamas now has 60 to 70 per cent support in the Gaza Strip.

Mr Deeb says Israel only has another 10 years in existence because Islamic governments will soon be established throughout the Arab world. Again, in his quiet tones, he declares: 'After that there will be no room for Israel.'