Return of the Sheik

By Contreras, Joseph | Newsweek, October 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

Return of the Sheik


Contreras, Joseph, Newsweek


Hamas launches a Palestinian power struggle

THEY TRUDGE THROUGH THE SANDY streets of Gaza City's Sabra district, past the shuttered doors of an Islamic community center and unpainted cinder-block hovels daubed with graffiti welcoming THE SHEIK OF THE INTIFADA. These Palestinian men come by the hundreds to pay homage to a frail, crumpled quadriplegic whose hands dangle from the armrests of a wheelchair. Ahmed Yassin, 61, cofounder and spiritual leader of the millitant Hamas movement, has returned to Gaza City in triumph after spending eight years in Israeli prisons for complicity in the murder of Israeli "collaborators." Even Palestinians who do not share Hamas's fervent Islamic fundamentalism welcome his return. The sheik's release was a humiliation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who freed Yassin and 20 others in return for two Mossad agents captured in Jordan after botching the assassination of a senior Hamas official. "We are in a war with our enemy who took our land and violated our rights," Yassin told NEWSWEEK one afternoon last week as well-wishers queued up in a playground festooned with Hamas banners.

Free, Yassin stands to build Hamas's credibility as a political force. Yasir Arafat already has been hurt by his inability to push forward the peace process, and his Palestinian Authority government is widely perceived as corrupt. "He [Yassin] is going to unify Hamas," proclaims Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. In the past two weeks, Arafat has been forced to honor his rival; he twice visited Yassin, and as a good-will gesture released another elderly Hamas activist from Palestinian-controlled prison.

No sooner was he out of jail than Yassin started playing politics. He offered Netanyahu a ceasefire in return for a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories and the release of all Palestinian prisoners--evidently without consulting Arafat. Israel won't consider such a deal. But it played well in Gaza, where Netanyahu's punitive border closings and repeated humbling of Arafat has made the Palestinian leader seem without leverage.

Just one month ago, Hamas was on the run after two suicide bombings killed 21 Israelis in Jerusalem. Under intense Israeli and U.S. pressure, Arafat's Palestinian police rounded up hundreds of Hamas figures and shut down many of the orphanages, sports clubs and other welfare organizations loosely affiliated with Hamas--which Israel covertly supported in the 1980s as a counterweight to Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Last week Yassin was demanding that Arafat reverse the "unjust" closing of Hamas institutions. …

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