News Analysis: Extradition of Hamas leader poses dilemma for Israel

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

JERUSALEM — No one was enthusiastic about the option, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, just a few months before his assassination, saw no other choice.

A hot potato suddenly landed in Israel's lap in July 1995, when U.S. officials arrested Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, the head of the political arm of Hamas, at a New York airport when he tried to re-enter the United States, where he had been living for many years.

Marzook had made it to the blacklist of Muslim fundamentalist activists as part of the general crackdown ordered by President Clinton against hostile extremist groups.

Rabin and his advisers confronted the question of whether to request Marzook's extradition on charges that he had helped plan Hamas terror attacks against Israelis.

Israel was engaged at the time — as it has been for several years now — in a bitter fight against Hamas terrorism. Rabin was also losing political points because of the perception that he was unable to put an end to Hamas.

Asking for the extradition of the man believed to be behind much of the terror seemed an appropriate move — but it was also one fraught with danger.

There was the fear that Marzook's presence in Israel might lead to additional Hamas terror attacks.

There was also the danger that he would become a Palestinian hero, and that his presence in an Israeli jail would lead to an intensification of the debate about Israel's treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

On the other hand, Israel could not just stand aside and pretend that Marzook was only an American concern. Israel had to take a firm stand of its own against terror.

Rabin eventually decided in favor of the move, and Israel formally requested Marzook's extradition, charging that he was engaged in a conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes against Israelis. He was also charged with having raised money in the United States for the military wing of Hamas.

The Israeli assumption at the time was that a lengthy legal process would ensue, with Marzook repeatedly appealing the extradition request and thereby delaying the actual handover.

And indeed, Marzook acted according to this basic assumption, repeatedly appealing his court-ordered extradition to Israel.

But last week, Marzook's lawyers announced that their client had dropped his challenge to the Israeli request.

They said he had lost his faith in the U.S. justice system after being imprisoned for 18 months and not being charged with a crime.

The hot potato was back in Israeli hands.

Israeli legal and intelligence sources said in interviews this week that Marzook's move was both surprising and clever.

Marzook, they said, had realized that he was slowly drifting away from the public eye.

A transfer to an Israeli security prison — with all its attendant publicity — had become for him a much more appealing alternative.

In addition, he would find Palestinian compatriots in an Israeli jail — to say nothing of the renewed pressures Hamas might launch against Israel in the wake of his extradition.

Marzook's timing was good, the sources added.

In recent months, relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas had improved considerably.

Both parties appear to have reached an understanding that Hamas could become part of the Palestinian establishment in the self-rule areas — as long as it did not embarrass the Palestinian Authority by carrying out terror attacks against Israel.

But this understanding had prompted a major debate within Hamas about whether to continue its military struggle against Israel or to begin recognizing the new reality of the evolving Israeli relations with the Palestinian Authority.

"Never before in its nine-yearlong history has the Hamas movement known such a strong sense of disintegration and lack of identity as it is experiencing nowadays," Arab affairs analyst Guy Bechor wrote this week in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Marzook is well aware of this debate, a senior intelligence officer said this week.

The officer added that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat could end up striking a deal with Israel for the release of both Marzook and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas who has been serving a life sentence since 1989 for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

In return for their release, the officer suggested, Arafat could agree to hand over to Israel a number of Arab terrorists now being held by the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond the concerns raised about what actions the extradition may prompt among Arab militants, Israel may therefore find Marzook to be a useful bargaining chip in future dealings with Islamic fundamentalists inside the self-rule areas and perhaps even outside.

Regardless of whether he is freed from an Israeli prison, once Marzook returns to the Middle East he is expected to take over the reigns of the Hamas leadership and put an end to the ongoing struggle between the group's local leaders and the leadership in exile.

Israel now faces the prospect of his imminent extradition.

Despite reports that Israelis officials are rethinking the extradition request, Israel is now pursuing the extradition process, Irit Kohn, director of the international department at the Justice Ministry, which signed the original extradition request, said.

Once Secretary of State Madeleine Albright approves the extradition, Israel will send police officers to the United States to escort the defendant back to the Jewish state, where he will face trial.

Israel could not have retracted its extradition request, the senior intelligence officer said, adding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could hardly be more lenient toward a Hamas member than was Rabin.

Carmi Gillon, the former head of the Shin Bet, said during a visit to New York this week that it would be "impossible" for Israel not to bring Marzook to trial.

"It's not a matter of political interests," he said. "It's a matter of law."

Yet Gillon, the official who was responsible for ensuring the security of Israelis, said he would prefer that "Marzook was somewhere else" besides Israel.