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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 17:48 GMT
Arafat's Hamas problem
Masked Hamas men demonstrate against the killing of leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud
Hamas: Defiant despite clampdown
By BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher

Since the attacks in Israel at the weekend that killed 25 people, the Palestinian security forces have arrested more than 100 Hamas militants in the toughest such clampdown for several years.

Coupled with the Israeli policy of assassinating its leaders, some might assume that Hamas would be reeling.

But the Islamic militant group remains defiant, confident of its popular support and the apparent reluctance of the Palestinian leadership to act decisively against it.

Most of the security forces around Mr Arafat are... loath to arrest militants fighting what is essentially the same cause

The relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has long been complex and tense.

The latest Israeli offensive against the Palestinian territories may be at least partly aimed at driving a final wedge between the two.

The balance of power between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has shifted in the past 14 months of the Palestinian uprising.

Hamas support rising

Hamas has gained in popularity among an increasingly radicalised Palestinian population.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership's inability to improve political or economic conditions for its people has seen its approval rating plummet - some polls suggest as low as 20%.

Masked Fatah activists march in Ramallah, January 2001
Mr Arafat has let Fatah form links with Hamas
Hamas has capitalised on the Palestinian Authority's failure to establish a functioning infrastructure by setting up a parallel welfare system with millions of dollars of foreign aid - mostly from Saudi Arabia.

Despite the Israeli assassination policy against its leaders, Hamas has also continued to launch deadly attacks on Israel.

Its populist activism has left the old guard surrounding Yasser Arafat behind.

To make up the lost ground, Mr Arafat authorised a new generation of younger and more radical grassroots leaders from his Fatah organisation to form alliances with Hamas and other Islamic militants.

Israeli pressure

In addition, most of the security forces around Mr Arafat are veterans of the guerrilla campaign against Israeli occupation and are loath to arrest militants fighting what is essentially the same cause.

Yasser Arafat gives the V sign
Mr Arafat's support may be down as low as 20%
Hamas has resisted recognising the Palestinian Authority as the sole national authority in the territories, saying this would be tacit acknowledgement of the Oslo peace accords, which it rejects.

But Hamas has never yet openly challenged Mr Arafat's leadership, perhaps recognising that its popular support only goes so far.

In putting increasingly intense pressure on Mr Arafat to eradicate Hamas and other Islamic militants, Israel may risk turning the delicate balance between them into an all-out clash.

Whether this is part of an Israeli plan to get rid of Mr Arafat himself is debatable.

What seems probable, though, is that it will further radicalise and harden the attitudes of ordinary Palestinians.

Dr Mohammed Ghazel, Hamas leader in Nablus
"We are fighting against occupation"
See also:

04 Dec 01 | Americas
US targets Hamas finances
04 Dec 01 | Middle East
Outrage at Israeli strikes
04 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israeli papers agonise over Arafat
04 Dec 01 | Middle East
Grand Sheikh condemns suicide bombings
04 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israeli backlash raises the stakes
04 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat's dilemma
03 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are Hamas?
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