How Hamas came to deal in death

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Within minutes of the explosions yesterday in Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem, the Islamic militant organisation Hamas was claiming that its suicide bombers had carried out the attack.

It was the latest in a series of suicide bombings carried out by Hamas, which began in April, 1994 when a West Bank Palestinian rammed a car filled with explosives into a crowded bus station in Afula in northern Israel killing eight people.

Hamas, an acronym for Movement of Islamic Resistance, was a latecomer to a policy of armed struggle against Israel, which it combines with the more covert aim of discrediting Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority.

The movement was set up in 1988 in Gaza by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and six other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first months of the Palestinian Intifada.

It developed a strong, well-financed infrastructure with its own schools, kindergartens, charities, clinics and social services. It aimed to end the Israeli occupation and establish an Islamic state. It wanted to replace the PLO. Mr Arafat's support of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War led Arab Gulf states to finance Hamas. It opposed the PLO's decision to go to the Madrid peace conference in 1991. The movement also set up its own military wing called the Izzedine al-Qassem brigades.

This wing started making guerrilla attacks from 1992. In response Israel expelled 415 fundamentalists, mostly Hamas, to South Lebanon. But Hamas' organisation was not damaged.

The Oslo accords of 1993 might have marginalised Hamas, but they were slowly implemented. Hamas portrayed the first suicide bomb at Afula as retaliation for the massacre by an Israeli settler of 29 Palestinians in Hebron. Hamas has generally been astute in judging the Palestinian political mood. Its long-term aim is to sabotage the peace agreements, but it is tactically agile in its own interests.

The suicide bombs in early 1996 destroyed the last Israeli government. Hamas seemed split between the leadership in Gaza and the leaders abroad, notably in Jordan. The former were distraught at seeing their social organisations closed down; the latter called for more attacks. Hamas is decentralised - Sheikh Yassin has been in an Israeli prison since 1989 - and it is not clear how far the leadership controls different cells.

Ever since Israel started to build a new settlement at Har Homa in Jerusalem, Hamas and Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority have started to come together. Mr Arafat publicly embraced its leader, Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, in Gaza, to the rage of Israelis.

An opinion poll in July showed that Hamas has 11 per cent support in Gaza and the West Bank, but the circle of sympathisers is probably larger. It is doubtful if Mr Arafat has the political strength to arrest and hold in prison a thousand or more Hamas militants, which would be the only way to stop their bombing campaign.