Tel Aviv Bombing: Hamas has learnt the lessons of Lebanon: Mass deportation of Palestinians has come back to haunt Israel

LEBANON has come to Israel - all thanks to the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

That was the chillingly simple message delivered by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the aftermath of yesterday's Tel Aviv bombing. In a telephone call to Israel Radio claiming responsibility for the attack, the caller said the bombing was carried out in the name of the 400 Hamas supporters, deported to south Lebanon on the specific order of the Israeli Prime Minister 22 months ago.

Mr Rabin had hoped that the mass deportation would teach Hamas a lesson, and halt attacks on Israeli targets. Instead, under international pressure, Mr Rabin was forced to allow the deportees, none of whom were charged with crimes, to return.

Now the expulsion has come back to haunt Israel. 'Thank you to Mr Rabin for sending us to Lebanon where we learnt about sabotage,' the anonymous caller said.

Among those exiled to south Lebanon was Hamas's intellectual leadership.

During their exodus in Lebanon, the activists rubbed shoulders with the Lebanese Islamist Hizbollah, which has been waging a guerrilla war with Israel across its northern border.

Through their contacts with Hizbollah, Hamas appears not only to have learnt new tricks, but almost certainly firmed up its links with Iran. This is apparent in the increasing degree of co- ordination and sophistication shown by Hamas over the past year, including yesterday's attack.

Ehud Barak, Israel's chief of staff, said yesterday that the Tel Aviv attack was almost certainly the work of a suicide bomber, who is thought to have stepped on to the bus carrying a bag containing 10-15 kilos of explosives.

Suicide bombings are a trademark of Hizbollah, and had rarely been seen in Israel or the occupied territories.

In the aftermath of the Hebron massacre in February, further evidence emerged of Hamas's increased sophistication. Car-bombs exploded at Afula and Hadera, inside Israel proper, killing 13 Israelis. Car-bombs are a trade- mark of Hizbollah, and had rarely been used successfully by Hamas.

Last week Israel was again caught of guard by new Hamas tactics. Gunmen opened fire in a fashionable Jerusalem cafe district. Then, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, brought more echoes of Hizbollah.

In London, Michael Barron, Israel analyst at Control Risks Information Services, predicted that the attacks would continue. 'The suicide bombing highlights that even the highest standards of Israeli security are not a deterrent against determined and well-planned attacks,' he said.

The usual Israeli military responses were put in place yesterday. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were closed off from Israel, preventing thousands of Palestinian workers from reaching their jobs, and suspects in the Israeli occupied areas rounded up.

At the same time, pressure was once again placed upon the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, to crack down on militants within his own camp. However, after the most serious attack against an Israeli target in recent years, none of these responses is likely to satisfy Israeli outrage, let alone curb Hamas.

But sealing off the occupied territories is likely to deepen economic hardship among Palestinians and stir up new anger. Furthermore, such closures do not prevent Arabs from entering the heart of Israel, where nearly 1 million Israeli Arabs live as Israeli citizens.

In the absence of Mr Rabin, who cut short a visit to London yesterday, it fell to Ezer Weizman, the Israeli President, to shore up support for the peace process, telling Israeli people that the only way to counter the 'terror' was to continue the dialogue. On his return to Israel last night, Mr Rabin was clearly determined to initiate new and drastic action. He went straight to the Defence Ministry, silent and stoney faced.

It appeared highly likely that the on-going talks to extend self-rule to the rest of the West Bank would be called off once again. But such action is probably only mean to placate the Israeli right, and cannot last, given the commitment to continue the peace process.

One drastic option - possibley under consideration - is for Israeli soldiers to re- enter the PLO controlled areas of Gaza in the search for Hamas leaders. This might win some temporary support among the Israeli public, but would destabilise Mr Arafat, and possibly end the Palestinian leaders brief reign in Gaza, once and for all.

The PLO would argue that such action would be to contravene the Gaza-Jericho accords. Furthermore, as the drama of the kidnapped Israeli soldier showed, Hamas is not simply operating in the PLO-controlled areas.

(Photograph omitted)