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US policy on Hamas confronts Arabs
( 2003-09-22 17:19) (Agencies)

In pushing to freeze out the militants behind many of the suicide bombings in Israel, the United States is presenting its Arab friends with a sensitive political challenge.

Arab governments are mindful, if not always in agreement with, Arab public opinion that believes the Palestinian group Hamas should be lauded for fighting Israel, not labeled terrorist.

The apparent ambivalence was evident in last week in Jordan, where the Central bank froze the accounts of six Hamas leaders and five associated charities while King Abdullah was visiting the United States, then lifted the ban without explanation. Washington urged Jordan to restore the freeze.

Jordan is a close U.S. ally, but on Wednesday a statement sponsored by about 70 Jordanian lawmakers called the freeze an unacceptable "compliance with American arrogance."

Arabs condemn Hamas for sending suicide bombers into Israeli cafes and shopping malls, but they also buy the argument that it's the only tactic Palestinians have against Israeli military superiority.

The civilians killed in Israeli strikes on Hamas get more attention in Arab media than suicide bombings. Arabs also view Hamas as waging a legitimate fight against occupation, even though its stated goal is an Islamic state in place of the Jewish state.

"Most Arabs do not consider Hamas a terrorist organization," Nidal Mansour, a Jordanian political commentator, said Thursday.

"There are people who look at those (suicide) attacks as harming the Palestinian's national interests," Mansour said. But "Hamas calls for ending Israeli occupation. If this vision is achieved, there would be no justification for those attacks. Until then, many people will support Hamas's point of view and actions, including the attacks."

Targeting the five Hamas-linked charities is especially sensitive, said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to Saudi Arabia's embassy in London. The United States maintains some cash from the charities goes to Hamas fighters, but Khashoggi worried that a freeze would hurt needy Palestinians.

The question of whether the charities were supporting Hamas "is something we should debate with the Americans, we should not just accept," Khashoggi said.

On Wednesday, Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Islamic charities linked to Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza receive about $14 million a year from Saudi Arabia. Gold said much of the money comes from charities controlled by the Saudi government.

Khashoggi said Saudi government funds are funneled only through Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and are for humanitarian purposes only.

Reflecting the tightrope that U.S. allies must walk, Khashoggi portrayed his government as neither supporting nor condemning Hamas although he stressed Saudi Arabia has "repeatedly denounced suicide bombings."

Governments like Jordan's and Saudi Arabia's may fear fanning resentment among citizens who sympathize with any group fighting Israel, said Dia'a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups.

"Arabs, even those regimes very close to the United States, know very well Hamas is not a terrorist organization," Rashwan said. "Hamas acts only on its land and to defend its people."

For Syria, which regards itself as the vanguard of the Arab war on Israel, shutting out Hamas is particularly difficult.

It has closed the organization's offices in Damascus under U.S. pressure, and Hamas officials in the Syrian capital can no longer give interviews or organize rallies. So these officials simply travel to neighboring Lebanon, which is heavily influenced by Syria.

That leads many in Lebanon to wonder whether Syria's actions were no more than a charade.

Egypt, another close U.S. ally, treats Hamas as an influential Palestinian player. Egypt has condemned suicide attacks. But it was willing to engage with Hamas and other Palestinian militants to help negotiate a two-month cease-fire that recently collapsed amid suicide bombings and Israeli strikes. Egyptian officials say they are ready to talk with Hamas again about reviving the truce.

Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese daily As-Safir, said Arabs see the problem as Israel's actions, and groups like Hamas as only reacting to Israel. Lebanon has signaled it wants better relations with the United States after years of strain, stemming in part from its support of anti-Israeli groups like its own Hezbollah as well as Hamas.

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