Israel's fears focus on Hamas Fear of Hamas haunts Israel

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Israelis settled down for the Sabbath with an unusual sense of relief yesterday, after a spate of traumatic events rocked the nation.

Just 10 days ago, they were rocked by the worst atrocity in recent years when a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv, killing 22 people. Terror had returned to the heart of the country and the sense of siege was reinforced.

'Keep riding the buses. Nobody can push us from this land,' politicians said. Newspapers competed to depict the gory results of the bombing.

On Wednesday, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan and the papers were bursting with proclamations about reconciliation and joy. Unlike the peace with Egypt, this looked like a genuine deal. Barriers between Israel and the Arab world were tumbling down, Israelis were told by television commentators.

The message was repeated by Israel's greatest friend and protector, President Bill Clinton before he left Israel yesterday. Mr Clinton told Israelis their siege was almost over.

Israel's diplomatic gains as a result of the peace process have created a new atmosphere of confidence. The treaty with Jordan was greeted as a welcome, if predictable, event. There were no big celebrations. 'People are beginning to see this kind of thing as the norm already. They are wearying of the festivities,' said Chaimi Shelev, a political commentator.

The economy is improving. A drop in unemployment and a rise in earnings has added to the sense of well-being.

Israelis know, however, that gains on the diplomatic map do not always translate into peace of mind. They doubt the intentions of Syria.

While Israelis welcomed peace with Jordan, Jordanians seemed cool toward Israelis. Last year it was the Palestinians who celebrated, prematurely as it turned out, after the Oslo accords, while Israel remained cool. 'There is an awareness that we cannot get a peace treaty where the two peoples are dancing at the same time,' said Michael Oren, a political lobbyist in Jerusalem. Most Israeli know the hand-shakes are staged events. There is no sign of hand-shakes between the peoples. 'We can still be stabbed in the back from across the Jordan,' said Narhum Barnea, a political commentator, after an Israeli tourist was stabbed in Amman last week.

While peace treaties suggest the threat to Israel from the Arab world is receding, Israelis know there is still an enemy close to home, which Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, seems incapable of tackling. Nurtured among radicalised Palestinians, this enemy is Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. It is growing in strength, as Palestinians become more disillusioned with their peace deal.

It was the outline agreement on Palestinian autonomy, signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which made possible Israel's treaty with Jordan and the promise of treaties with other Arab countries. While the movement to make friends with the Arab world has gathered pace, the problem of the Palestinians has remained unsolved. 'Israelis have a sense of being more integrated to the Middle East than ever before, but on the other hand, they have as great a sense of fear of their own Palestinian neighbours as ever before,' Mr Shalev said.

Israel's fear of Hamas is increased by the group's proven ability to strike inside Israel proper. Hamas has forced Israel into an unfamiliar defensive role. Under the agreement with the PLO, Israel has given responsibility for curbing the militants to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman. Large-scale retaliation is a hallmark of Israeli military doctrine. But, for the first time, it has been set aside, under the PLO deal. 'We withdrew from Gaza and now they are still coming out to get us inside Israel,' Mr Oren said. 'On top of everything else, we feel our hands are tied. We have given the job of crushing them to Arafat.'

Hamas is not a state with an army, as were Israel's enemies of old. But, as the PLO proved before it became a partner in peace, militant groups are just as capable of reinforcing Israel's sense of siege.

(Photograph omitted)