Rising Hamas is undaunted by loss of leader Yassin

The movement's moral values and welfare have won Palestinian hearts. By Danny Rubinstein
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The Independent Online

I met Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder killed in an Israeli attack last week, shortly after he was released from prison a few years ago.

I met Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder killed in an Israeli attack last week, shortly after he was released from prison a few years ago.

His humble residence in Gaza, typical of the homes of other Hamas leaders, stood in great contrast to the luxurious homes of Palestinian Authority Fatah leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas leaders have always had a reputation for modest living. Possessing no luxury cars, sumptuous offices or designer suits, they became adored by the Palestinian street.

Wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin explained to me succinctly that he was unable to recognise Israel's existence, although he would be willing to accept a ceasefire should Israel retreat to the 1967 "green line" boundaries.

His voice was high and shrill, but surrounded by his grown-up offspring, who nursed him round the clock, he expressed himself clearly and calmly.

The Hamas movement will find it very difficult to replace Sheikh Yassin and I expect a power struggle to ensue. A bitter enemy of Israel, who supported and instigated suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, he was involved in all aspects of Hamas activities - political, military and ideological.

Hamas today is the leading opposition group in Palestinian society. It advocates and practises a continuation of the armed struggle against Israel, insisting it has no right to exist as a Jewish state, since all of Palestine is considered a holy Islamic land that belongs only to Muslims. Yet the movement is only 15 years old.

Until Hamas was created in 1988, resistance to Israel was secular and nationalistic, with left-wing, Marxist overtones. Arab "revolutionary" regimes had sought support since the 1950s from the Soviet bloc, and the Palestinian movements under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation obtained arms and political backing from the Soviet Union and its allies.

The left-leaning and nationalist PLO was a common enemy in the 1970s for both Israel and the Islamic religious movement, of which Sheikh Yassin was a member. The son of an Arab refugee family from 1948, disabled since his teens by a sporting accident, he completed his religious studies in Cairo, and became involved with the Islamic movement when he returned to Gaza.

As a young journalist in the early 1970s, I joined Israel's deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, at the dedication ceremony of the Islamic Academy in Hebron, which the Israeli military authorities even funded for more than seven years. Many graduates of this very institution became the most vicious enemies of the State of Israel. Ever since, many have accused Israel of providing the raison d'être for the Islamic religious movement - a phenomenon identical to American support for the Mujahedin in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

During its early years, Hamas waved two flags - one against "corrupt Western values", the other against the Israeli occupation. The former included promiscuity, alcohol, pornography, gambling, and overly explicit belly dancing.

Hamas has also nurtured a network of welfare services, including educational institutions, nursery schools, and clinics for the lower middle classes. This has not only highlighted the failings of the Palestinian Authority, it has increased Hamas's support.

Sheikh Yassin had already spent time in prison under the Israeli military authorities before Hamas was founded. In 1989 he was again arrested, accused of organising the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldiers. This time he spent over eight years in prison, but he was regularly in touch with his movement. During this time Hamas achieved its present ascendancy. It succeeded in attracting and organising Palestinians who rejected the peace process, and was strengthened by a series of miscalculations.

In 1992, following the Madrid peace conference which formally launched the peace process, Hamas militants carried out several terrorist attacks. The then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, exiled 400 Hamas militants to Lebanon - a decision later rescinded by the Israel Supreme Court, which ordered their return after one year of exile. These militants formed a hard core who, upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza, were powerful opponents of the 1993 Oslo accords. When Yasser Arafat formed the Palestinian Authority soon after- wards, he discovered that he and the PLO were facing an intransigent internal opposition.

In 1977 Benjamin Netanyahu's government ordered the assassination in Jordan of Khaled Mash'al, now one of the candidates to succeed Yassin, by Mossad. But their agents were caught by the Jordanian police, and King Hussein was livid at such a violation of his territory following his peace treaty with Israel.

The solution was to exchange the Mossad agents for the most famous Palestinian prisoner in Israel - Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The Sheikh, then 61, was given a royal welcome in Amman, followed by an ecstatic return to Gaza.

Danny Rubinstein has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967. He is a columnist for 'Haaretz' newspaper