You'd think it would be easy to put a frail, 65-year-old quadriplegic under house arrest. But it's never been harder to quell the activists of Hamas. When armed police from Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority moved in to surround the Gaza City home of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the movement whose name means zeal, calls rang from the loudspeakers of local mosques, "Go and rescue Sheik Yassin!" The security men were greeted with a hail of stones and occasional gunfire from several thousand defiant Hamas loyalists determined to show Arafat, just like Israel, how much they have become a force to be reckoned with.
In the past 14 months of the second Palestinian uprising, no group has benefited from the failure of diplomacy and the rise of violence as much as Hamas. The militant Islamist movement that takes responsibility for 19 of the 36 suicide bombings that have claimed 91 victims since September 2000 is riding a wave of support from despairing Palestinians for its unrelenting vigor in striking back against Israel. In polls, its popularity outstrips that of Arafat's mainstream party, its young men flock eagerly to the call of martyrdom, and its latest round of murderous assaults may prove the final death blow to a peace process the group has long sought to kill, believing as it does that Israel is an alien entity on Islamic land that must be destroyed.
After Hamas bombers claimed 25 victims in Israel last week, the isolation of Yassin made a good show of a crackdown, but little more. The infirm cleric in his white robes, confined to a wheelchair since a teenage sports accident paralyzed his limbs, speaks in a soprano pitch so soft a listener can barely hear him. But for years his fiery exhortations preaching eternal warfare until Israel is driven into the sea made him the dominant figure in an organization that turned his words into action. Now he is largely a figurehead. He presides over Hamas' sprawling social services and sets its intransigent political tone. He's revered for his spiritual guidance and daily rallying of the faithful. But the days in which he used to press the button and send supporters to carry out operations are gone.
That responsibility has been grabbed by a variety of other hands. The deadly business of Hamas is run by its shadowy military wing. Only the most dedicated and disciplined are allowed into the tight little cells that carry out attacks. Perhaps 200-men strong, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, named for a Muslim preacher who died leading a revolt against Jewish immigration in the 1930s, does the dirty work, plotting actions against Israeli troops and civilians. Hamas operations include kidnappings of soldiers and drive-by shootings, but those exploding human bombs are the spearhead of the group's campaign.