Security increased for Hamas heads

Leaders in Syria, threatened by Israel, claim noninvolvement in Shalit capture.

mashaal 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
mashaal 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas leaders in Syria insist they have nothing to do with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and have no influence over his Palestinian captors. But the leaders have been putting in 20-hour days since the soldier's capture a week ago, and fielding requests for help from several countries trying to win the soldier's release, as Israel has increasingly blamed them for the attack. They also have changed homes, abandoned the use of their mobile phones and resorted to basic modes of communication - missives carried by trusted messengers - to communicate with each other, because of Israeli threats to target them. Israel has accused the group's top leader, Khaled Mashaal, who is in exile in Damascus, of being the brains behind the June 25 kidnapping and indicated he is a possible target for assassination. "We take the Israeli threats seriously, and we know the occupation will not pass up the opportunity to get the movement's leadership," Osama Hamdan, Hamas' Lebanon representative, told The Associated Press in Damascus on Sunday. "We have taken precautions that won't get in the way of our performing our duties," he added. Since operatives close to Hamas claimed 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit's abduction, attention has focused on what role the Damascus-based political leadership of Hamas has played in the kidnapping and its aftermath. The fact that Hamas now controls the Palestinian government has only added to the confusion. US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to arrest Mashaal and close the Hamas office in Damascus. Hamas' political leaders have denied any role, saying such attacks are planned on the ground by the group's military wing, and they have no influence or contact with its members. It's an argument Hamas has used since it began suicide attacks against Israel in the 1990s. Yet Hamas officials admit several countries have contacted them as part of diplomatic efforts - spearheaded by Egypt - to win the soldier's release. "We have a role because international parties get in touch with us," said Hamdan. "But we refer those parties to the people on the ground. We have no contact with those holding the prisoner." A Palestinian official in Lebanon, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the political leadership lays broad guidelines - such as agreeing to a deal to defuse the crisis - but the captors set the details for what the acceptable conditions for a deal are. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that Egyptian efforts to diplomatically resolve the crisis are being set back by confusion about who really has the decision-making power on the Palestinian side. Hamdan rejected that, reflecting the tension among the Palestinian factions. "Instead of wasting his time talking about who's in charge (of Hamas), Abu Mazen (Abbas) should say he stands by the Palestinian resistance and by the Palestinian people in their fight to free Palestinian prisoners," said Hamdan. Either way, the crisis has kept Hamas leaders in Syria quite busy, said the Palestinian official in Lebanon, with members of the politburo - whose number Hamas refuses to disclose - barely getting four hours of sleep a day. The official said the members rarely meet together for security reasons. But, he insisted, morale is high, and Mashaal is taking the Israeli discussion of targeting him with calm and a sense of humor. Hamdan said the negotiations have not borne any fruit and blamed Israel for not agreeing to a deal set out by the kidnappers in which Shalit would be exchanged for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in addition to female and teenage Palestinians jailed by Israel. Egypt and Jordan have also contacted Syria to use its influence with Hamas to help win Shalit's release. But Syria, according to Arab officials, has said it cannot do so while the Israeli offensive against Gaza continues. Another top leader of Hamas in Syria, Mohammed Nazal, said Sunday that no deadlines have been set in the talks with the Egyptian mediators, despite Israeli newspaper reports that Egypt had given Hamas a Sunday deadline to resolve the crisis. In Cairo, an Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Egypt would continue its diplomatic efforts. He said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was talking to Assad, soliciting his support to persuade Hamas leaders to release the soldier, while Egypt's chief of intelligence was talking with Mashaal directly. Egypt has proposed that the Israeli soldier be freed immediately and that in return, Israel release unspecified prisoners in the near future. But Hamdan said Hamas wanted more than just promises. "The Palestinians have for years gotten guarantees that prisoners would be released but nothing would happen," he said. "That's why the resistance fighters are more determined than ever not to stop only at promises that will not be kept. They want something on the ground."