Since the start of the intifada, both Israeli and Arab observers have eyed the growth of Palestinian Islamic groups with great interest, in some cases even exaggerating their influence and popularity for separate political reasons. The Islamic fundamentalist alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has seemingly experienced a major setback during the last year, however, as the military trials of suspected leaders and activists of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, continue in Gaza.
The military trial of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, which began on Jan. 4 under heavy security at the Evez Junction in Gaza, near its checkpoint with Israel, has attracted great public scrutiny both in Israel and in occupied Palestine. The 54-year-old Sheikh, who has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood, has been charged with 15 separate offenses.
These include possession of weapons, founding and leading an illegal organization, and ordering the 1989 kidnapping and murder of Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa'adon, two Israeli solidiers who disappeared separately in April 1989 while hitchhiking near Ashkelon. The discovery of Sasportas' body set off racist anti-Arab riots in the spring of 1989 in Israel, in which two Gazan workers were stoned to death by mobs and dozens of others were injured. Sa'adon's body has yet to be found.
Reversing an Unofficial Policy
The mass arrest of 250 Hamas activists in Gaza and the West Bank following the discovery of Sasportas' body signaled a reversal of unofficial Israeli policy, often referred to in Israel as the "Hamas card." Previously, the occupation authorities pursued an obviously tolerant policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its militant Hamas wing in hopes that it would grow strong enough to split the political loyalties of the Palestinian community, which is basically pro-PLO.
In 1973, Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamic Charitable League, which operated health centers, women's literacy classes and kindergartens and also provided assistance for the poor. In 1976, the Islamic Society was formed in Gaza by Khalil Al-Qoqa. Both organizations were affiliated with the Moslem Brotherhood and both stressed raising Islamic consciousness as a means eventually to liberate Palestine, rather than calling for immediate confrontation with the occupation. Both Islamic organizations were approved by the Israeli occupation authorities.
On Jan. 7, 1980, Israeli soldiers sat and watched as 500 men marched from the mosque in Gaza's old city to attack the Red Crescent Society, smash liquor stores, and burn movie theaters along the main street in Gaza City. "Actually, they were opposed to us educating women on health issues they found immoral," explains Dr. Abdel Shaft, head of the Red Crescent Society and a prominent nationalist leader. "Islamic groups have always had the opportunity to demonstrate in Gaza, so long as they demonstrated against us and not against the Israelis." This contrasts, of course, with the hostile treatment accorded by the Israeli army toward other types of group activities by young men in Gaza.
Next, still in the early 1980s, the Israeli authorities turned a blind eye as the Moslem Brotherhood received significant financial assistance from outside, in particular from the Gulf states.
"The fact that Hamas is devoted to the religious destruction of the Jewish state didn't seem to matter much in the minds of Israeli policymakers then," explains Hosam Najji, a professor from Bir Zeit University. "Their motivation clearly was to use Hamas to divide and conquer, both of which goals have so far failed miserably."
An Excellent Excuse
To Israeli leaders bent on keeping all of Palestine at all costs, an increase in Hamas' popularity would provide them with an excellent excuse for refusing to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, since Hamas articulates an agenda of total liberation rather than a two-sided compromise solution as does the PLO. …