Palestinians clash over arrest of Hamas leader

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The fuse that may detonate civil war among Palestinians was burning away inside an obscure home in Gaza City with a green Islamic flag fluttering from its roof.

Inside, under house arrest, sat Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the aging wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas, which carried out three suicide bombings in Israel last weekend.

From late at night until dawn, several thousand supporters from Gaza battled with hundreds of paramilitary policemen dispatched to his home by another elderly man, also now marooned – Yasser Arafat. It was the most dangerous collision between Palestinian security forces and militant Islamist nationalists since Mr Arafat – stranded in his West Bank headquarters with his helicopters destroyed – began making mass arrests on Sunday.

Hoping to avert the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and to head off further bombing by the Israeli air force, Mr Arafat's security officials claim to have rounded up more than 150 people in four days.

The crisis became more perilous still yesterday when a 21-year-old Hamas supporter, Mohammed Silmi, was shot and later died. His relatives insist that the police were to blame. The police denied it but the "street" was in no doubt that Mr Arafat's forces were responsible.

The confrontation began in the early hours yesterday when Palestinian police were sent to the cleric's home, apparently intending to enforce his house arrest. The soft-spoken Sheikh Yassin, 65, is principally a figurehead for Hamas. Confining him to his home was largely a symbolic move by Mr Arafat, designed to attract headlines and to persuade President George Bush that measures are now being taken against extremist Islamists, listed by the US as terrorist groups whose funding should be frozen.

But the operation quickly ran into trouble. Witnesses said that as soon as the security forces moved in – several hundred of them, in jeeps – Hamas officials raced to local mosques and broadcast appeals through loudspeakers for supporters to take to the streets. About 3,000 responded to the call from the minarets. Youths in masks and green bandanas stoned the police; police hurled stones back. Shots were fired into the air and there was a brief firefight.

Western news agency reports from Gaza repeatedly said the Hamas leader was "under house arrest". But yesterday no police were outside his green front door, or along the lane – known as Sheikh Yassin Street – in front of his home. The Hamas leader and his bodyguards seemed to have agreed to detain themselves, without an overt police presence.

The security forces had withdrawn, leaving the streets to a crowd of young men. Though unwilling to be named, they did not hesitate openly to criticise Mr Arafat and his Palestinian Authority (PA) for interning scores of Islamic militants on the orders of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon – a man passionately loathed throughout the occupied territories.

"We are very angry with the PA," said Mohammed, 18. "They are just carrying out the orders of the United States and Israel. The heads of the security forces have to be changed. We want Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to be president. They are arresting people who are just praying in the mosques, and not Hamas or Islamic Jihad supporters at all ... We have to declare a jihad. This is the only choice we have."

Suggestions that Mr Arafat had no choice but to detain the cleric after Hamas's latest suicide blitzkrieg were dismissed. "We agreed with these suicide bombings," said Salib Salem, 20, a student at Gaza's Islamic University. "If we don't retaliate, Israel will kill us one by one."

Whether this anger is enough to make Hamas take up arms against the PA is unclear. Some Palestinians argue this would not happen, as the Islamists know it would play into the hands of Israel, and want to maintain unity in the face of the main enemy – Mr Sharon.

But the strain is showing. There was, by Gaza standards, a poor attendance at a rally yesterday organised by Mr Arafat's loyalists in Fatah to call on the population to stand up against those Islamic nationalists resisting the mass arrests. Nor should the support for Hamas be underestimated. Its following has soared since the intifada began. Gazans say it is running at about 50 per cent, not least because of its social welfare network, run by charities that plug the holes left by the deterioration of PA institutions.

Take, for example, Abu Mohammed – a 53-year-old invalid with acute arthritis – and his wife, Yusra. They used to receive 200 shekels (£33) a month from the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs. They relied on this money to feed their six children, aged from six to 13. Seven months ago, the ministry stopped paying. They scrape by because of Al-Salah, an offshoot of Hamas, which pays their electricity bills, gives them clothes and food hand-outs, and 400 shekels a month. Hamas even gave Abu Mohammed the bed to which he is now confined. It will take more than a wave of arrests to smash a group with this kind of support.