TOM BEARDEN: A week of bloodshed that killed at least 47 Palestinians and Israelis ended with U.S. officials focusing blame on Palestinian militant groups, particularly the largest, Hamas. The organization has claimed credit for numerous suicide bombings in the last two years, including Wednesday's bus blast in Jerusalem. It killed 17 Israelis. Today, Secretary of State Colin Powell said terror is at the root of recent unrest in the MidEast.
COLIN POWELL: And if the terror goes down, then the response to terror will no longer be required. So we have to get moving, bring the terror down. All of our efforts are focused on Hamas and persuading Hamas and Islamic jihad and other terror organizations that this is the time to abandon terror.
TOM BEARDEN: The latest attacks and counterattacks began Tuesday, when Israeli helicopter gunships tried and failed to kill Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli assassination attempt prompted rare criticism from the White House. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president was "deeply troubled" by the development.
ARI FLEISCHER: The president is concerned that this strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks.
TOM BEARDEN: U.S. officials made no mention of Israel the next day, when the Palestinian bus blast preceded another set of Israeli helicopter strikes. In all, this week's aerial attacks, including today's, have killed six Hamas leaders and at least 13 Palestinian civilians. On Wednesday, President Bush urged groups that fund Hamas to cut off support, and his spokesman said yesterday that "the issue is not Israel, the issue is not the Palestinian Authority. The issue is Hamas." The surge in violence has brought renewed threats from both sides. Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, announced Tuesday his group would target "each person in Israel" including civilians, and a spokesman warned foreigners to leave the region to ensure their safety.
MAHMOUD A-ZAHAR, Hamas Spokesman: Because Israel opened the fire for everybody, I think it is worthy to consider eye-for-eye, nose-for-nose, leader-for-leader, and civilian-for-civilian.
TOM BEARDEN: Meanwhile, Israeli leaders have said they have decided to target the top Hamas leadership, even political leaders like Sheik Yassin, even though he's not part of the group's military wing.
AVI PAZNER, Israeli Government Spokesman: Hamas has now specifically threatened our women and children. It is the first terrorist organization to do so. We will do whatever it takes for them not to be able to carry out their activities.
TOM BEARDEN: Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would wage war on Hamas "until the bitter end."
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on Hamas and what it would take to rein it in, we turn to Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago; and Matthew Levitt, a former Middle East counter terrorism analyst at the FBI. He's now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.
Professor Khalidi, tell us about, what Hamas is and how it began, back in '87, wasn't it?
RASHID KHALIDI: That's correct. Hamas developed out of the Muslim Brotherhood, which for about two decades had operated under the Israeli occupation in a very quiescent manner. It did not resist the occupation it, in fact, was seen by the Israelis as a force which could be used and was used against the PLO.
In 1987, it began as a resistance movement against occupation and it was one of the main forces in the first intifada from 1987 onwards. Its objective is an Islamic Palestine; that's its charter, which means the elimination of Israel. And it has used a variety of means to do that, including most recently attacks on Israeli civilians. It is an organization which has consistently gotten support of about 10 percent of Palestinians. And that number goes up and down. Recently it has been much greater than that. And it has a mass base partly because of the extensive network of social services it offers, as well as the fact that it poses as the most vigorous defender of the Palestinians and the partisan of resistance against occupation and settlement.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that, Matt Levitt in terms of its roots? For instance, the Financial Times today called Hamas Israel's own Frankenstein monster. Was Israel involved in nurturing Hamas?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Hamas would be today what it is whether or not Israel supported it at its inception. It is true that Israeli used it as a counterweight against the secularist nationalist Palestinian groups and the PLO, which at the time were presenting the prominent terrorist threat. The Muslim Brotherhood at the time, as Professor Khalidi said, was not engaging in acts of terrorism. And it was playing one party, which was at the time, a more peaceful party. The fact is that today Hamas is indeed a very violent organization, and both its political and social welfare wings, while engaging in other activities as well, support those terrorist activities.
MARGARET WARNER: And it has never accepted the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
MATTHEW LEVITT: It has never accepted the legitimacy of the state of Israel and it has also never accepted the legitimacy of any type of secular Palestinian state. Senior Palestinian officials have said to me many times, and I concur, that in the world view of Hamas, there is no room for any Israel, nor is there any room for any PA.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, where does it get - as you pointed out, it also runs all these social services; that's pretty expensive, probably more expensive than terror. Where does it get the money for all of this?
RASHID KHALIDI: Well, Hamas draws on a vast network of Palestinian and non-Palestinian supporters in the Middle East and elsewhere; people who feel that there's no possibility of a political solution, or who are against a compromise solution, and who feel that these are the only people who are in the field answering tit for tat the kinds of horrors that are inflicted on the Palestinians by the occupation.
So they have the support of people who have money in the Arab world and elsewhere, mainly among Palestinians, I would guess, but also others. And, as you say, this is a very expensive operation, in particular their social welfare component, which is central to their appeal, given the destitution among Palestinians and given the very, very high number of casualties, for example, in the last 32 months, more than 25,000 wounded, more than 2,400 killed. In those circumstances, a movement which is not corrupt, a movement which is clearly working very hard for social welfare is able to pick up a lot of support. And that does cost money.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Matt Levitt, when President Bush calls on Arab states to cut off funding for Hamas and support, would that be effective? Would that really hobble Hamas?
MATTHEW LEVITT: It would be extremely effective. It is not the only measure that has to be taken but at the present moment, the most important. Hamas's social welfare activities do, in fact, take up the vast majority of its expenses. Those social welfare institutions also provide key logistical support for Hamas's terrorist activity.
For example, the FBI has demonstrated that many of the charity committees, the Zakat committees in the West Bank are led by known Hamas members, members of the Hamas military wing. Therefore shutting off of the funds will make it much more difficult for them to carry out their attacks. Additionally, when Hamas funds the families of widows and orphans, for example, it earmarks those funds primarily for families of suicide bombers, not only but primarily, and the lists of donors from charities that have been associated with Hamas bear that out. The fact is that the idea that there's a distinction, there's a disconnect between the social welfare and military wings, for example, of Hamas, is sophistry, as David Althouser of the National Security Council's working group on counter terrorism Financing put it recently.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, it is obvious from what the president and what Ari Fleischer and Secretary Powell have said in the last few days, the U.S. seems now quite focused on trying to find a way to sideline Hamas so that they can get the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority at work on the road map. Powell said today we are working hard, or something, to persuade Hamas that it's time to abandon terror. Is Hamas open to persuasion or negotiation if in fact their aim is as absolute as you both have described it?
RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think there are two important things to state here. The first is that their stated aims are completely uncompromising. But there have been a number of times in the past when it is clear that there were deep, profound differences between different wings and different leaders and different trends within Hamas over whether to come to terms with the PA, indeed, even whether to comes to terms with Israel, at least in the short-term.
Secondly, what is really crucial is that there is no military means of dealing with Hamas. Israel has been dealing militarily with this kind of issue not just Hamas, for a very long time. Certainly for the past 32 months there has been very little restraint shown on the Israeli side and it has clearly not worked. The approach that the PA was trying, which was to try and at least win over those elements in Hamas who would be willing to come to terms, may or may not work. I'm not entirely sure that there is the possibility of entirely isolating those people who will not stop fighting.
But to focus solely on Hamas and to ignore the fact that the Israeli army during the time when the PA was trying to comes to terms with Hamas killed 19 Palestinians, this is over the past two and a half weeks, including two leaders of Hamas in Tulkarem six or seven days ago, a leader of Islamic Jihad, and another in the northern part of the West Bank about ten days ago, is to act as if this is a war with only one party fighting. The Israeli army and Hamas are both committed to a military solution to this problem. If the United States wants to resolve it, it has to stop both of the parties that are committed to a military solution and I would suggest that the occupying power, which has killed three times as many Palestinians as Hamas and its allies, is someplace they ought to be focusing, not just on Hamas.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Matt Levitt, the Israeli government confirmed essentially the stories that have been running that they, in fact, have decided to target the top Hamas political leadership, not just the military fighters. What will that accomplish?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, senior U.S. Government officials have said the problem is Hamas, and I agree. What the Israelis are saying is that they're going to target the leadership of Hamas. From what I understand it is not necessarily any political leader but political leaders that have been tied to acts of terrorism. Now whether or not that is going to be successful, I don't think it will be in its entirety. It is true that if you eliminate key members of terrorist infrastructures, you can do great harm to their ability to conduct attacks, as Israel did for example in the case of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the period before the current intifada.
The whole idea of a cease-fire with Hamas, frankly I find ridiculous. Hamas has no place for Israel or the PA in its world view, and it will continue to adhere to that principle. All the cease-fire is going to do is give it time to reconstitute and rearm. There have been ten different attempts at cease-fires with Hamas. Every single one has been broken. And Professor Khalidi noted the terrible atrocities that have happened on both sides in the past few days. It's a little bit of a chicken and an egg. As it happens, in fact, in this case, the first attack was not by the Israeli army but by a Hamas attack on an Ares checkpoint at the same time that the Israelis were, to great political cost to them, dismantling illegal outposts. Clearly there is responsibility on both sides here. But I think the Israelis are responding to Hamas attacks, and I think if there is a lack of terrorism, there would be a lack of Israeli military activity.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, Richard Haass, who's director of policy planning at the State Department, was on this program last night, and he suggested a third alternative in which he said there's not a political solution with Hamas, but he also didn't think it was really up to the Israelis -- that, in fact, the Palestinian Authority had to be given the tools it needed to do it. One, do you agree with that? Do you think that the new Palestinian prime minister is capable of reining in Hamas in some fashion? Would it require the use of force? Would it trigger a civil war within the Palestinian community if he were to do that?
RASHID KHALIDI: Unless and until the unceasing process of expanding the stranglehold of the occupation is brought to a halt and reversed and unless the process of expansion of settlement, which is just ongoing daily is stopped, there is no possibility of the Palestinian Authority doing the slightest, anything, which will restrain Hamas.
Israel can try. Israel will fail. It has failed. It will continue to fail to use purely military means. This is a political problem at base. And for those who are irreconcilable, and they exist on the Palestinian side, on the Israeli side. The point is to isolate them politically. Israel has in fact, on many of the cases that Mr. Levitt was talking about, been the destabilizing reason for the failure of negotiations with Hamas. Key assassinations, such as the one carried out in Tulkarem a couple days before the summit, of two Hamas leaders were among the things that pushed this thing over the edge.
I agree, it is a chicken and egg situation. But I think you have to understand that this is at root a political problem having to do with occupation and settlement; and you have to address that at the same time as you address how you restrain Hamas and how you restrain the Israeli army.
MARGARET WARNER: Quick final answer from you. Is Mahmoud Abbas capable of doing this if given the right tools, and would it mean a civil war within the Palestinians?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Several of his senior security officials have said they would like to be given the order to crack down on the militants who want to do nothing other than conduct attacks, not the others, who are just Islamists. Professor Khalidi keeps referring to occupation, and there is no question the Palestinians are suffering. But the fact is, that for all of its failures, I think the last attempt at peace at Camp David did get to the bottom line that occupation is not the only issue. One of the many things that had been negotiated was the issue of settlements and therefore, the Hamas elements, in particular, who will attack whether occupation there is or not. The Palestinians need to crack down on them.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.