News Analysis: Palestinian-Hamas feud unnerves Israelis

JERUSALEM — Israelis are watching the escalating tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Islamic militants with apprehension and uncertainty, wondering how the rift will spill over.

On one hand, Israeli citizens remain on heightened alert for terrorist attacks after the fundamentalist group Hamas issued threats last week against Israeli targets.

At the same time, officials worry about how the internal struggle will affect diplomatic efforts to revive the dormant peace process.

The tensions date back to March 29, when the body of Hamas' chief bomb-maker, Mohiyedine Sharif, was found after an explosion in a garage in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Sharif was on Israel's list of most-wanted terrorists, and Hamas militants suspected that Israeli operatives were behind his death — just as they had been held responsible for the death of Yehiya Ayash, the Hamas bombmaker known as "The Engineer," who was killed by a booby-trapped cellular phone in the Gaza Strip two years ago.

A Palestinian pathologist's assertion that Sharif had been shot dead some hours before the explosion tended to corroborate Hamas' suspicions. And the fundamentalist movement vowed dire retribution against the Jewish state, despite repeated statements from Israeli officials that they were not behind Sharif's death.

Then the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat seemed to corroborate Israel's denials, asserting that Sharif had been killed by rivals within Hamas' military wing, Izz a-Din al-Kassam.

To back up their assertions, Palestinian interrogators claimed they had extracted a confession from Amad Awadallah, brother of a leading Hamas terrorist, Adel Awadallah.

Amad Awadallah later found a way of issuing a statement from his jail cell that his confession had been extracted under physical and mental duress.

Hamas, predictably, is circulating that denial vigorously. The militants have also gone a step further, accusing the head of the Palestinian Authority's secret security service, Jibril Rajoub, of direct responsibility for Sharif's murder — in cahoots, the organization claims, with Israel.

Amid those charges and countercharges, the Palestinian Authority in recent days began arresting such key Hamas political figures as Abdel Azziz al-Rantissi and Ibrahim Makadmeh. Palestinian officials also rounded up leading members of another militant movement, Islamic Jihad.

For their part, Israeli officials were watching those developments warily — and without much rejoicing over the Palestinians' open rift.

Some officials stress that for all their reservations about Arafat, they want him to beat back any challenge to his authority from the fundamentalist opposition, which is implacably opposed to any political accommodation with the Jewish state.

Other officials are ambivalent because they believe Arafat's public confrontation with Hamas will have a diplomatic price tag.

According to that scenario, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hardly be able to assert to U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who is due back in the Middle East next week for another round of shuttle diplomacy, that the Palestinian Authority is not doing its utmost to fight terror.

Netanyahu has reiterated that there will be no progress in the peace process without a firm Palestinian commitment to do that.

But his demand will ring somewhat hollow as Arafat risks his own political support by confronting Hamas head-on and by appearing to be aligned with Israel against the fundamentalists in the matter of Sharif's death.

The Americans long ago adopted Arafat's claim that while he should be expected to apply a 100 percent effort in the fight against terror, he cannot be required to produce 100 percent success — just as the Israelis themselves were not able to achieve total success when they administered all of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority's arrests of Hamas officials and its accusation that one top Hamas figure wantonly murdered another are impressive evidence, Arafat will surely argue, of his unwavering commitment in that realm.

Meanwhile, Israelis, who have been keeping their guard up since Hamas began issuing its threats of retaliation, hardly feel they are benefiting from the internecine feud.

The Hamas threats issued in the days before Passover created a period of tension — for Israeli security personnel and civilians alike.

In the blazing heat of Passover week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the beaches and the countryside, and the army and police were stretched thin in an effort to provide at least minimal protection.

To help security officials, Israelis have been repeatedly called on to do their part by keeping an eye out for suspicious-looking people or objects.

Amid those fears of a terror attack, a leading member of the Saudi royal family has reportedly presented Hamas extremists with $25 million. The funds sparked rumors that they would be used to underwrite a major bombing campaign against Israel.

The Saudi benefactor was not named by the Sunday Times of London, which reported the development, but it is believed to be Crown Prince Abdullah, heir to the ailing Saudi King Fahd.

Diplomatic sources in London regard the revelation as particularly disturbing because it is thought to be the most significant gift to Hamas by a senior official in Saudi Arabia.

The Sunday Times reported that the Ramallah faction of Hamas' military wing is planning a terrorist attack against at least one target in Israel within the next few weeks to avenge Sharif's death.

In a strategy carefully calculated to deflect criticism from Arafat and to prevent a crackdown on Hamas, the Ramallah wing will absolve the main body of Hamas from responsibility by announcing that it had broken away and was operating independently, the paper reported, citing Palestinian sources.

The report also suggested that Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, currently receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, attempted to head off the attack by warning that a renewed Hamas bombing campaign could ignite a civil war among Palestinians.

His warning, however, was reportedly ignored by both Hamas leaders abroad and by young Hamas militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

While the bulk of the $25 million Saudi gift has been earmarked for Hamas militants, some of it will reportedly fund Hamas social-welfare programs in the West Bank and Gaza that help generate grass-roots support for the organization.

The paper also reported that Hamas is investigating the possibility of investing some of the money in Britain, which is a haven for Islamic extremists from several Middle Eastern countries.