Jordans king puts his foot down on Hamas activity

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JERUSALEM — After years of tolerating Hamas activities in Amman, Jordanian officials are clamping down on the Islamic fundamentalist group.

The recent move are sparking accusations from Hamas officials that Jordan's King Abdullah is doing the bidding of Israeli officials — a claim roundly denied by both Israel and Jordan, who signed a peace treaty in 1994.

While it is true that Israel has exerted pressure on Jordan to put the squeeze on Hamas operations in Amman, Israeli officials this week were quick to repudiate the Hamas claims.

"We did not exert any pressure," said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy minister of defense. "Abdullah took the restrictive measures against Hamas because he re-evaluated the situation and reached the conclusion that this was the right thing to do under the existing circumstances."

According to Sneh and other Israeli officials, Abdullah was concerned that if he refrains from acting against Hamas now, the militant group may grow strong enough to give him the same troubles the PLO gave his father, King Hussein.

Twenty-nine years ago, 2,000 people were killed during the Black September riots, 13 days of clashes between the Jordanian army and PLO fighters operating in and around the Jordanian capital.

Ever since Abdullah ascended the throne after Hussein's death in February, he had adopted a policy of cordiality with the wider Arab world.

But on Aug. 30, Jordanian officials shut down the offices of Hamas in Amman, arrested dozens of followers and issued arrest warrants for three of its leaders, Khaled Mashaal, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook and Ibrahim Ghosheh.

The three were in Tehran when the warrants were issued. When they returned to Amman last week, they were promptly arrested. One of them, Marzook, was soon deported.

Marzook is in Damascus, where Syrian officials harbor several Palestinian groups which, like Hamas, oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

He was quoted Monday as saying he expected that he would soon be able to return to Amman, adding that he believed there would be a "breakthrough" to reverse the crackdown.

Others suggested that the crackdown may be short lived.

"It is too early to tell whether Abdullah will go all the way against Hamas," said Nachman Tal, a former high-ranking official with Israel's Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency whose book "Islamic Fundamentalism" was just released.

"It is still likely that in two weeks or so, Abdullah will release the prisoners."

Hamas has prospered in Jordan since the beginning of this decade, when Israeli officials detained, killed or deported many of its members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hamas moved many of its operations to Jordan, which was a natural choice for the militants, given the fact that some 3 million Palestinians — or more than two-thirds of the total population — live in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Over the years, Amman became the back door for Hamas activities in the Israeli territories.

Even prior to Jordan's peace agreement with Israel, Hussein had banned Hamas from initiating terrorist attacks inside Israel. The restrictions became even tighter after the agreement was signed.

While Hamas officials in Jordan promised to meet Hussein's demands, it was often an agreement more honored in the breach than in the observance.

The Hamas headquarters in Amman supervised the military training of terrorists and transferred money and military equipment into Israel.

In what was the latest breach, Hamas operatives in Jordan allegedly were behind an attack early last month in which a group of Israeli Arabs attempted to carry out bombings in Haifa and Tiberias.

The bombs exploded prematurely, killing three of the attackers and seriously wounding an Israeli woman who was passing by.

The Jordanian crackdown on Hamas offices in Amman took place several days before the botched bombings.

But after speculation arose that the Israeli Arabs were taking their orders from Hamas operatives in Jordan, Abdullah apparently became more firm in his resolve to arrest Mashaal, Marzook and Ghosheh if and when they returned from Iran.

In taking the action, Abdullah may have underestimated the reaction of Palestinians living in Jordan. Last Friday, some 3,000 Palestinians staged a sit-in to demonstrate their support for Hamas.

If such demonstrations continue, they could prove a crucial factor when Abdullah decides whether to press on with the crackdown on Hamas.