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Arab, Hamas Leaders Share Roots

November 7, 1998

KHAN YOUNIS REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ One is the hunter, and one is the hunted.

Mohammed Dahlan, chief of Palestinian preventive security in the Gaza Strip, has been handed the daunting task of breaking the Izzedine al Qassam brigades, the military wing of the radical Islamic group Hamas.

Mohammed Deif is a top Hamas military leader, one of the most wanted fugitives in the Palestinian lands, suspected mastermind in a string of bloody attacks on Israelis _ and a boyhood neighbor of Dahlan, his newfound nemesis.

Now in their mid-30s, the two grew up in the same refugee camp, went to the same university, earned their fighter’s stripes in the same street clashes with Israeli troops.

Shaped by common experience, their lives have always run on some strangely parallel track. Now they share the stage in a drama whose larger outcome could lead to the success or shattering of the new Mideast peace accord.

Israel insists that in exchange for more West Bank territory, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority must wage all-out war on Islamic militants who have used suicide bombings to terrorize Israelis and thwart past peace efforts. That includes tracking down key Hamas leaders like Deif.

In demeanor, Dahlan and Deif could hardly be more different. Dahlan is big, bluff and smooth-spoken; Deif is said to be bookish, reticent and solitary. While Dahlan is a sharp dresser whose confident carriage attracts attention, Deif is described as a master of disguise, a man who can all but disappear in plain sight.

Dahlan is a rising star in Palestinian politics, reportedly impressing President Clinton when they met during Mideast peace negotiations at a Maryland retreat in October. Deif has clung to the shadows, drifting like smoke through his fugitive’s netherworld.

For all their dissimilarities, the fate of one could easily have been the other’s. Except for a crucial, youthful choice: Dahlan joined Arafat’s army, while Deif embraced the more fundamentalist Hamas.

Because of that, Dahlan’s allegiance lies today with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which has chosen to make peace with Israel. Hamas _ and Deif _ remain dedicated to its destruction.

But Palestinian society puts an overwhelming traditional emphasis on personal connections, village bonds and kinship ties. So the battle lines tend to blur, even in the face of what look like directly conflicting ideologies. Thus, a straightforward-seeming task _ the Palestinian Authority must root out Hamas _ is in fact enormously complicated by cultural factors.

The face of the enemy, after all, is so like that of a brother.

___

Khan Younis refugee camp, named for the scruffy Gaza Strip town that surrounds it, is a warren of narrow, sandy streets lined with cement-block hovels. Although it in many ways resembles Gaza’s seven other refugee camps, its isolation amid lonely stretches of sand dunes and its stiflingly provincial atmosphere make the others seem almost cosmopolitan by comparison.

Even by strict Gaza standards, public mores are conservative; women wear long enveloping black robes, and none ventures out without a headscarf. Barefoot boys leap among the rubble, kicking a battered soccer ball.

Graffiti looping across the camp’s walls range from the grandiosely political to the humbly mundane. ``No peace without our Jerusalem!″ says one. Next to it is a hand-scrawled advertisement for a camp hairdresser.

Recent years have wrought some changes. When it rained, Khan Younis’ streets used to run with raw sewage; today the water system is being upgraded. There is a new housing project of pale-yellow apartment buildings, a soon-to-open hospital.

But some things are much as they were when Mohammed Dahlan and Mohammed Deif were growing up in Khan Younis, their family homes separated by only a few trash-strewn streets.

The camp still sprawls right up to the barbed-wire-topped perimeter wall of the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. Israeli soldiers man a nearby military checkpoint. The camp is still a prime recruiting ground for radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, turning out foot soldiers and top leaders alike.

At least a half dozen of the 30 Palestinian militants whose arrest was demanded by Israel in early November are from Khan Younis. It was the hometown of Hassan Salameh, the former No. 2 in Izzedine al Qassam who oversaw a series of deadly bombings before Israel shot and captured him two years ago.

Neither Dahlan nor Deif has lived in the camp for years, but both still have relatives there. However, none would speak to journalists or allow their photographs to be taken.

Acquaintances and associates of one or both men, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that as youngsters, the two moved in separate but overlapping circles. They attended the same elementary school, but at different times of the day _ like many in Gaza, where schools are so crowded that students go to classes in shifts.

Both went on to Gaza’s Islamic University. Although both are described as sharply intelligent, neither graduated. Their real education came in street clashes that eventually escalated into the ``intefadeh,″ the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule.

Both served time in Israeli jails, and Dahlan was deported for anti-Israeli activity. Later, both settled into apprenticeships that would heighten a sense of blood loyalty to their chosen comrades.

Dahlan served with Arafat’s closest confidant, Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad. Deif became a deputy to Yehiya Ayyash, the Hamas bombmaker whose deadly expertise earned him the nickname ``The Engineer.″

Each lost his mentor to assassination. In operations widely attributed to Israel, al-Wazir was gunned down in Tunisia in 1988, while Ayyash, in a mordantly poetic touch, was killed at a Gaza Strip hideout by an explosives-rigged mobile telephone in 1996.

With the coming of Palestinian autonomy, Dahlan returned to Gaza, continuing an ascent in the Palestinian political hierarchy that culminated in his high-profile role in hammering out security agreements at the Wye River negotiations in October.

Deif, rarely seen in public the past five years, moved ever deeper underground.

___

Just how diligently is Dahlan looking for Deif? He has called it the greatest challenge of his career.

``I consider myself very successful in my work,″ he told reporters recently. ``I have not failed in any of my missions, except for one _ Mohammed Deif.″

On the Israeli side, there is open skepticism about the scope and intensity of the search.

``In the past, we believe the Palestinians have had opportunities to arrest Mohammed Deif, and they’ve taken every opportunity to miss every opportunity,″ said government spokesman Moshe Fogel.

Despite such doubts, Deif might be lucky to escape alive. In the past seven months, several other top members of Hamas’ military wing have met with ends as violent as their lives.

In September, fugitive brothers Imad and Adel Awadallah died in a hail of bullets when Israeli soldiers raided their West Bank hideout. In March, Hamas bombmaker Mohiyadine Sharif was found dead under murky circumstances at the scene of a car-bomb blast.

If those who suspect Dahlan of shielding Deif are wrong, a search could be a drawn-out affair. Though not large, Gaza is labyrinthine. Ayyash, the bombmaker, was on the run for four years before he was finally tracked down and killed.

For a man in hiding, patience and a solitary disposition are assets. Deif is described by one person who knows him as the kind of man who could live for months alone in a darkened room.

But if he is the key Hamas mastermind he is held to be, Deif may be entering a period of stepped-up activity just when it carries the greatest risk of exposure. Statements issued in Izzedine al Qassam’s name have threatened more suicide attacks like the failed attempt to blow up a school bus carrying Jewish children in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 29.

Analyst Boaz Ganor, who heads the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism outside Tel Aviv, said the longing of ordinary Palestinians for the gains promised by the peace accord could overcome any reluctance by Palestinian officials to bring Deif in.

``Palestinian public opinion might accept the arrest of Deif now, because it would be seen as advancing the agreement, and the agreement involves the main Palestinian national interest _ territory,″ said Ganor. ``If there was ever a time to move, this is it.″

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