Rabin hostage to the martyrs of his revenge: In one fell swoop Israel has uprooted the seeds of trust. Sarah Helm looks at damage to peace hopes

IN THE Golden Roof Restaurant in Bethlehem yesterday, on the occupied West Bank, the families of the Palestinians deported by Israel to Lebanon gathered quietly to condemn the action.

Ikram Muhtaseb, 24, a social work student, said her brother, Mohammed, 32, had been seized by Israeli soldiers in the early hours of Wednesday from the family's Bethlehem home. It was not until they heard his name on television on Friday evening that the family knew he was among the 418 Palestinians exiled because Israel suspected them of supporting the Islamic militants who kidnapped and murdered an Israeli border guard.

Ikram nervously addressed the packed room: 'In the name of God the merciful the compassionate, we salute our martyrs. We want to live a dignified life in our own homeland. Let the armed struggle be our symbol.'

Her words were greeted with solemn approval. Like most Palestinians, the families of the deportees appear to be in shock. After the deportations, curfews imposed unnatural silence on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. But it could not last.

Late yesterday, after the curfew was lifted in the Gaza Strip, hospital sources in the territory reported six Palestinians had been shot dead in the town of Khan Yunis after stoning troops.

The expulsions were a sweeping act of vengeance by the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin - and the biggest since the occupation began in 1967. Already the peace process has ground to a halt; the United Nations has condemned the act; and to the Palestinians the 418 have become martyrs, ejected by Israel and turned back by Lebanon to languish in no man's land.

The long-term effect is, however, harder to gauge. In one fell swoop Mr Rabin has uprooted the fragile seeds of trust in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis alike. In Israeli minds he has replanted the siege mentality: Israel versus the world. And in Palestinian minds he has simply fed the old hatred, reminding them he is the man who once promised to 'break their bones'.

Mr Rabin may be ruthless, but he was elected in June on platform which promised Palestinian autonomy within nine months. His reputation as Prime Minister is staked on this. He wants to go down in history as the man who made peace. He knows the mass deportations jeopardise all of this. So why did he do it?

The answer can be summed up in one word: Hamas. Hamas is the Islamic Resistance Movement in the occupied territories, and its growing power is feared. Founded in 1987 just after the start of the intifada, Hamas spread its influence quietly at first, winning support through the mosques of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. After 20 years of occupation, with little prospect of a settlement and growing disillusion with the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had failed to produce easy solutions, Hamas's message was heeded.

As in the rest of the Arab world, the religion of Islam offered succour to the poor. At the same time Hamas proclaimed its call for jihad - holy war. While the PLO's message blurred as the intifada faltered, Hamas offered clear objectives: the destruction of Israel, and the establishment of an Islamic state over the whole of Palestine.

Until this year, Israel had avoided clamping down on Hamas in order to fragment backing for the PLO, which it still regards as a terrorist organisation. Hamas's support has also been fuelled by the failure of the peace process to achieve concrete results. Hamas has been refusing to countenance the negotiations, accusing the PLO's mainstream group, led by Yasser Arafat, of selling out by supporting them.

At the same time, Hamas has carried out increasingly successful operations against Israeli targets through its armed wing, the el- Qassen Brigades. Its growing credibility in the Islamic world has brought new and powerful friends. In early October Hamas representatives based in Jordan were invited to meet Iranian officials in Tehran. Although the details of Iran's support are not known, there is no doubt that the organisation's new confidence is in part due to Iranian cash and political backing. Hamas also receives funding from Saudi Arabia.

It is only in the past two weeks that Hamas has spread real fear, leaving a trail of Israeli blood. First three soldiers were shot dead in Gaza and one in Hebron, by Hamas gunmen. Then came the kidnap of Nissim Toledano. On his way to work in the central Israeli town of Lod, the sergeant- major was seized by gunmen who seemingly slipped under the noses of Israeli security with devastating ease. In exchange for his freedom, Hamas demanded the release of its founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in an Israeli jail for allegedly ordering the execution of Palestinian collaborators.

After a two-day stand-off, and a security clampdown, Toledano was found stabbed to death on Wednesday by the side of the road near Jerusalem. It is said he was tortured to death with a primitive head-clamp. Israel reeled, and Yitzhak Rabin pondered his response for 24 hours.

He could, of course, have acted within international law and avoided condemnation. He could have made arrests and brought people to trial. Instead he chose to round up more than 1,200 suspects and then expel the 418. Mr Rabin had hoped to present the country with an overnight fait accompli. But civil rights lawyers got wind of the pending deportations and protested to the Israeli Supreme Court. The court eventually sided with the Prime Minister.

Israel's case is that the action will help, not hinder, the peace process in the long term: unless Hamas is crushed, Mr Rabin believes, there can be no peace. It is likely that when he carried out the deportations, Mr Rabin calculated that international condemnation would be muted. He knows the West fears the spread of Islamic militancy as much as he does. As a government spokesman said on Thursday: 'They thanked us for bombing the Iraqi reactor 10 years afterwards - at first that too was condemned.'

So far, however, it looks as if Mr Rabin has miscalculated. Whatever the threat from Hamas, international law cannot be flouted, the UN has warned. Some good may yet emerge from the crisis, on one condition: that Mr Rabin now supplements stick with carrot. Even liberal Israelis have supported his action. But they say that having sought to crush the militants, he must now nurture the moderates. This means he must look more kindly on Hamas's political opponents, the PLO. They are the ones supporting negotiations, not threatening jihad. If the Palestinian streets are not to erupt, scuppering all hopes of peace, Mr Rabin must talk to the PLO.

(Photograph omitted)

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