The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, toured Middle East capitals this month, finding enthusiastic official and popular support in the region for the Islamist struggle which has as its stated goal the eradication of Israel.

Despite his frail condition-the pretext he gave for needing to travel abroad--Yassin, 62, managed to raise huge sums of money (US$300 million from the Gulf states, and a promise of $15 million a month from Iran). He secured the opening of Hamas offices in several countries and forged new alliances. His success has stirred up Palestinian officials in Gaza, where the PLO-heavy self rule authority views the revitalisation of the rival Hamas with alarm.

So concerned was PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, that his intervention reportedly resulted in Yassin being denied visas to visit Jordan and Lebanon (as well as South Africa several weeks earlier). The "sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" watched helplessly, however, as the sheikh received a warm welcome in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Kuwait.

Particularly upsetting for the PLO was the risk of Yassin winning broad popular support among the large expatriate Palestinian Arab communities in the oil-rich Gulf states.

'Yassin is uncontaminated'

While heavily-censored Palestinian media all but ignored the tour (in itself an indication of PA concern), Arab press elsewhere gave it prominent coverage.

In Iran, Yassin was received by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and held talks with present and past presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly (May 14-20) reported that, according to some reports, Khamenei referred to Yassin as "the real, legitimate and sole representative of the Palestinian people".

Saudi Arabia told a similar story. The Sunday Telegraph reported on June 14 that Arafat's "aides were said to be beside themselves with anger as they watched Sheikh Yassin riding in a motorcade and sitting beside King Fahd at a lavish banquet in the Saudi capital Riyadh." (They would doubtless have been even less impressed by an editorial in the official Saudi newspaper, Al Riyadh, which called the PA chairman "senile" and "defeatist".)

In Kuwait, which remains at odds with the PLO over Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Foreign Minister resigned after opposing Yassin's visit (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 19).

Further embarrassment awaited the PLO in Yemen, where Yassin received an honorary doctorate from Sana'a University. The university's traditionally pro-PLO president, Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqalah, said during the ceremony that Yassin represented the Palestinian people, and praised Hamas for adhering to its principles, unlike others (a clear reference to the PLO).

At one point, Yassin announced that his tour was not an attempt to compete with the Palestinian Authority for leadership of the Palestinians-but then added that "those who are capitulating to the enemy and those who abandon their people's rights are distancing themselves from their people." He took pains not to criticise the PLO, PA or Arafat by name.

One Kuwaiti newspaper, quoted by Al-Ahram, opined that Yassin was viewed as an "uncontaminated Palestinian leader who doesn't compromise on Arab Muslim rights and adopts the language of force that is the only one understood by the Zionist enemy".

In a rare public indication of PA sentiment, Arafat advisor Nabil Amr voiced dismay at Yassin's "inflammatory remarks" which he said were "harmful to national unity". Hamas political bureau head Khalid Mashaal, who is accompanying Yassin, told Al-Quds Al-Arabi (May 22) that Kuwait and other unnamed states had agreed to allow Hamas offices on their territory and the appointment of representatives. Sudan later announced the opening of a Hamas office in Khartoum.

'Israel will be eliminated'

One of the most cordial welcomes awaited Yassin in Damascus, where he held lengthy talks with President Hafez el-Assad and other senior leaders. So confident did he feel afterwards that the cleric used the opportunity to express the view that he expected Israel to be eliminated and a Palestinian state to be established "over the whole of Palestine" in the first quarter of the 21st century.
"The strong will not remain strong forever and the weak will not remain weak forever," Yassin told a press conference. "Things change ... there is now a growing resistance against Israel" (Reuters, May 26).
Yassin praised Assad, who he said had "extended all support" for Hamas' struggle. He also stressed that there was no separation between Hamas' political and military wings (respons-ible for some 16 suicide bombings which have cost the lives of at least 130 people and wounded many hundreds more since 1993).

"We cannot separate the wing from the body," he said. "If we do so, the body will not be able to fly. Hamas is one body." Yassin's admission suggests that funds donated to Hamas for, say, an orphanage in Gaza City could well end up financing the slaughter of children on Israeli streets.

While in Damascus, Hamas announced a strategic alliance with the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a "rejectionist" terror group opposed to the Oslo Accords. Yassin also spoke of the co-operation between Hamas and Hizb'Allah, saying both are "against an enemy which is occupying our lands. We have a duty to co-operate, and our co-operation-which is not a secret-will continue".

As Israeli leaders debated whether they should allow Yassin to return to Gaza, commentators differed over the risks posed to Israel by his trip. Counter-terrorism expert Yigal Pressler said: "He is collecting money for attacks, and he has not showed any intention of changing his ways" (The Jerusalem Post, June 9). Pressler felt he should be kept out.

But the head of Tel Aviv University's Political Violence Research Unit, Ariel Merari, said Hamas' internal wing was more "moderate and pragmatic" than elements abroad. Thus, the strengthening of the internal organisation through Yassin's activities was in Israel's interests, he argued.

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