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After the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, many Israelis stayed away from public places for fear the organization would avenge his death. The leaders of Hamas vowed to wreak vengeance on a scale that Israel would not forget. After the assassination of Yassin's successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Hamas declared that a series of revenge operations would soon be launched. Despite the renewed threat, the Israeli public this time reacted differently. Masses of people filled the leisure areas and the public parks at Pesach and again on Independence Day, without fear. The papers even published sarcastic cartoons about Hamas's "silence."

That was a shift from one extreme to the other. Both approaches are misguided. True, Hamas has been weakened, but it is capable of perpetrating a surprise. The organization is driven by the ambition to take revenge on Israel, and that feeling extends to people who are not members of Hamas, too. The Shin Bet security service, with the help of Military Intelligence, is succeeding in thwarting a large number of would-be suicide bombing operations. However, what the Shin Bet does not say is that, despite its successes, the flow of Palestinians who are ready to die in order to harm Israelis has not ceased. There is no longer a single model of a suicide bomber. The familiar "model" of the past has been augmented by women, mothers, the elderly and even children. The security forces that are engaged in preventing these operations are not explaining the essence of this phenomenon. It would be interesting to hear the explanation of the head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter.

The fact that the number of volunteers willing to perpetrate terrorist attacks is increasing also indicates that the current silence of Hamas does not diminish the possibility that it will take Israel by surprise. There is a temporary respite in the war just now in Hamas. Such ups and downs have occurred before. The current decline in Hamas's operational capability can be traced back to the beginning of last December in Judea and Samaria. In an operation code-named New Momentum, the army struck at the Hamas infrastructure in the Ramallah area - the same infrastructure that nourished the Hebron area. The members of three squads that were engaged in terrorism - including the suicide bombing next to the Tzrifin base and the ambush in the village of Ein Yabrud, where three soldiers died - were killed or apprehended. Most of those who were caught were former prisoners who returned to terrorist activity after their release. One of those who was apprehended carried an American passport. Also caught was the liaison man who transferred money from Syria to finance the terror attacks. Though there are no signs of a Hamas recovery in the West Bank, there is no doubt that it will come, even if slowly.

In the Gaza Strip the organization's operational capability declined after the Israeli attacks on the Hamas leadership last October. At the same time, the organization's financial network was partially crippled following American and European pressure on various countries, including Saudi Arabia. The disengagement plan announced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prompted the army to initiate and step up its pressure on Hamas. This is what provided the incentive for the decision to liquidate Yassin and Rantisi. And this will remain the approach in the coming months - as could be seen strikingly in the vigorous response against Beit Lakiya after Qassam rockets were fired at the Nizanit settlement in the Gaza Strip.

The current operational weakness of Hamas, which doesn't yet have the infrastructure to perpetrate attacks abroad, led the organization to ask Hezbollah, the militant Lebanon-based organization, to help it carry out revenge attacks. This is an operational, and not only a financial, request first made by Rantisi. If in the past Hezbollah had ties mainly with Islamic Jihad, operational ties are now being formed with Hamas as well. Hezbollah will naturally take advantage of the opportunity to infiltrate the Gaza Strip after making deep inroads in Judea and Samaria.

Rantisi's assassination brought an abrupt end to the talks Hamas was holding with Mohammed Dahlan on the period that will follow the Israeli disengagement. Hezbollah will undoubtedly take advantage of that situation, too.