Reporter's Notebook: Does Hamas Face Collapse?


JERUSALEM, Israel, April 21, 2006 — -- Hamas's refusal to condemn Israel's deadliest suicide bombing in 20 months was a sharp departure from the denunciation of terror from PalestinianPresident Mahmoud Abbas.

Monday's attack, which killed nine other people and woundeddozens outside a packed Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant, was carriedout by a bomber from the Islamic Jihad militant group. Hamas leaders defended the attack as a justified response to Israeli "aggression" against the Palestinians.

Hamas's response was in line with its refusal to give up its right to violence. Hamas leaders see it as an essential bargaining chip in future negotiations, one that it believes Abbas and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave up too quickly and received nothing in return.

In response to the suicide bombing, Israel said is would expel five Hamas government members who live in East Jerusalem and would be considered "illegal aliens" if they refused to obey. This is widely believed to be a lengthy and ineffective procedure.

Israel's response to the bombing likely won't make headlines as there is no single massive military operation taking place. However, the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli politicians are hardly idle.

For the last three weeks the IDF has fired about 4000 shells into Gaza in attempts to stop a handful of militants from firing the Qassams (homemade rockets that are mostly inaccurate) into Israel. (The last Israeli to be killed by a Qassam was in August 2005).

IDF shelling and other 'operations' have resulted in 30 Palestinian deaths, not including six children who were also killed. About 130 other Palestinians have been injured.

Reportedly, there is a detailed plan in the hands of the U.S. Near East Affairs Officer Elliott Abrams and Israeli officials on how and when the Hamas government might collapse. International pressure and cutting off much needed aid is still considered the best way to force the collapse of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority has not been able to pay their employees in two months.

Consider this:

1. About 140,000 people are employed by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians have large families, so those salaries are estimated to support close to a million people, one quarter of the population.

2. The Palestinian Authority funds more than half the health clinics, three quarters of the schools and about 70,000 well-armed security people.

3. Where the western countries are pulling out, Islamic countries are pitching in -- Iran, $50 to $100 million; Saudi Arabia, $92 million; U.S.-ally Qatar, $50 million, The Arab League, a monthly sum of $55 million.

It's not clear how the money will get into a place like Gaza, even with money being donated. Banking laws prohibit the transfer of funds to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization.

Being in Gaza this week, I saw the store shelves pretty much empty, as I am told even the shopkeepers don't have enough money to buy supplies. At some point, despite support for Hamas and democratic elections, there could be some type of protest because of the financial crisis.

One woman who works for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza City as an administrator said many of her colleagues are not coming to work because they cannot even afford the transportation costs. Combined with the constant shelling -- which is fierce, loud and frightening -- Gaza is an especially horrific place to live right now.

Ironically, many secular Palestinians worry about Israel forcing the collapse of Hamas.

As one secular Palestinian businessman in Ramallah who did not vote for Hamas but still supports it because it was democratically elected, told me the larger fear is that Hamas will be pushed back to what it's known for and does best -- suicide bombings. Hamas hasn't directly participated suicide bombings for over a year.

Meanwhile, the United States and Israel continue to back Abbas and vice versa in an effort to undermine Hamas's authority.