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Monday, 24 June, 2002, 22:00 GMT 23:00 UK
Palestinian choices: Hamas or Arafat
Israeli police check the wreckage of a bus in Jerusalem on 18 June following a suicide bombing
Israeli incursions have lessened grassroots support for suicide bombings

After a week of renewed suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has placed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual head of the Islamist Hamas movement, under house arrest in Gaza City.

A further 13 senior Hamas activists have been detained by the Palestinian Authority, apparently in response to calls from Israel and the US to rein in the militants.

But it is not clear how effective these measures will be, given the growing level of support Hamas enjoys among Palestinians, particularly in its Gaza stronghold.

Palestinian police were on Monday reported to be keeping their distance from Sheikh Yassin's house, which was encircled by armed Hamas members.

Militants rising

The Palestinian Authority's moves coincided with an Israeli helicopter gunship attack on a vehicle in Rafah in the Gaza strip in which six people, including two senior Hamas militants, were reported killed.

The time could soon come when Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will become irrelevant

Khalil Shikaki, of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research

The attack on Rafah and Israel's re-imposition of its siege on Mr Arafat's Ramallah headquarters will make it politically impossible to maintain the pressure on Hamas, says Dr Ghassan al-Khatib, Palestinian analyst and Labour Minister.

He notes that support for Hamas among the Palestinian population has doubled since the start of the intifada, from about 10% to around 22%, according to recent polls.

If you add to this the support claimed by Islamic Jihad, the percentage increases to between 26 and 28 - almost matching the 30% support levels among Palestinians for the pro-peace factions, such as Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, says Dr Khatib.

Israeli deterrent

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, believes that Mr Arafat's ability to manage the crisis is weakening.

One factor, says Dr Shikaki, is the emergence of a temporary alliance between a young guard that wants political reform and the radical Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian youths light fire-bombs in Hebron
Psychologists say Palestinian youths are traumatised by violence

''The time could soon come when Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will indeed become irrelevant as radical nationalist-Islamist militia control the streets of Palestinian cities,'' Dr Shikaki said.

Palestinian support for the suicide tactics adopted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad nevertheless appears to be waning.

Recent polls show approval of suicide bombings fell from about 80% of the population earlier this year to around 60% after the recent Israeli incursions.

Israel's retaliatory actions have acted as a deterrent and the Israeli cabinet's decision to deport the families of suicide bombers is also likely to have some preventative effect.

But more important has been international criticism of the targeting of Israeli civilians, which Palestinians recognise has undermined international sympathy for their cause, says Dr Khatib.

Last week a group of prominent intellectuals, including Hanan Ashrawi and Sari Nuseibeh, published a petition calling for an end to the suicide bombings, reflecting growing Palestinian doubts about the tactic.

Social welfare

But there are powerful forces at work contributing to the hostility and spirit of revenge among young Palestinians, believes Dr Khatib.

Of the 90 suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians since the beginning of the intifada, most have been carried out by young Palestinians from poor backgrounds.

Psychologists report that young Palestinians are increasingly traumatised by the impact of living under siege and in constant fear of violence.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat
Arafat's political stance has secured much grassroots support

Islamist groups like Hamas provide them with a sense of purpose and provide a rich social welfare system and relief institutions funded from outside.

So far, says Dr Khatib, US-led efforts to close off funding for such groups appear to have had little impact.

They are able to step in to provide the services that the Palestinian Authority is increasingly unable to offer.

Paradoxically, the Israeli bombardments of the past 21 months have also removed the main source of resentment against Mr Arafat's authority among Palestinians.

Before the intifada, there was widespread criticism of mismanagement within the authority.

While the Israeli incursions have only worsened the authority's ability to manage, it is no longer held responsible for this failing.

Although Yasser Arafat may be too weak politically to rein in the Hamas militants, he does nevertheless retain solid support among Palestinians.

This is because - as opinion polls show - Palestinians continue to approve of the political decisions he has taken since Camp David in August 2000.

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24 Jun 02 | Middle East
03 Dec 01 | profiles
29 Nov 00 | profiles
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