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Jordan Denies Hamas Founder Was Freed in Israeli Spy Trade

By Nicholas Goldberg

King Hussein denied reports Thursday that Israel had released the founder of the militant Hamas movement as part of a swap for two reported Israeli secret agents jailed in Jordan.

"There is no deal. A deal is usually this for that. None of this has happened," Hussein said after visiting Sheik Ahmed Yassin in a hospital in Amman, Jordan, along with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Arafat and Hussein were among several public officials from Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza who traveled to the bedside of the ailing sheik to pay respects and earn political points, one day after the quadriplegic Yassin was released. Several Palestinian officials and Yassin himself said they expected he would leave Jordan in the weeks ahead.

"I send my greetings to the entire Palestinian people," Yassin said in a telephone message to Gaza. "I want to inform them that I am coming to Gaza in the near future."

Yassin is being treated in the same hospital where Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal had been for eight days after a mysterious attack on him in Amman Sept. 25 by two men claiming to be Canadian tourists. They were allegedly using forged passports.

Israeli radio and television reports have said Meshal's attackers were agents of Israel's Mossad secret service - and that Yassin had been released several days later to help mend relations between Israel and Jordan.

As he was released from the hospital Thursday, Meshal said: "It is evident that the Israeli Mossad wanted to get rid of me."

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said his country was taking "very seriously" the claim that Israel had provided the forged passports, and said Canada's ambassador to Israel was being brought back to Ottawa to discuss it.

Wednesday, Israel radio and television said Yassin's release was a result of the attack on Meshal. But Thursday, Jordan's state minister for information, Samir Mutawe, said there was no swap deal, and that the two suspects in the Meshal attack would be brought to trial and released only if found innocent. He did not elaborate.

The 61-year-old Yassin, who is losing his hearing and has difficulty breathing, is the founder and leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that has taken credit for most of the suicide bombings of the past two years. He was in prison for founding the organization and for ordering attacks by Hamas guerrillas against Israelis. Hamas is dedicated to ending the Oslo, Norway, peace process.

But Thursday's pilgrimages to his bedside by Palestinian and Jordanian leaders proved once again that Hamas, despite its militant position, is a powerful force that cannot be ignored. Despite Israel's demand that the organization be dismantled, its infrastructure destroyed and its leaders locked away for a long time, the Israelis nevertheless released him - apparently because they understood how serious the repercussions could be if he died in an Israeli jail.

And despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's charge several weeks ago that the Palestinians "must decide if they want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel," the truth is both Israel and the Palestinians must deal with Hamas.

Thursday, in an interview on Israel radio, army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak acknowledged that he had not ruled out further talks with Hamas leaders.

"I think that the chance for the Hamas to be part of a legitimate dialogue is with us," he said. "I know that among the Hamas people there are those who have (second thoughts) about how they should behave in the future."

For Arafat, Hamas represents a serious challenge. On the one hand, he has been under tremendous pressure from Israel to root out its bombers and cripple its infrastructure. For two weeks, he has been arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank and Gaza.

But at the same time, Hamas remains tremendously popular among Palestinians - particularly at times when the peace process appears to be stalled. Thus, Arafat found himself visiting the sheik in Jordan even as he held the sheik's supporters in prison.

"Arafat cannot ignore the release of Sheik Yassin," said Musa Abu Marzook, another Hamas leader who was at the meeting Thursday. "He is one of the most popular men among the Palestinians. He is the founder of the Islamic movement, and he paid the price for what he did. He is the one who led the Palestinians in the intifada."

Abu Marzook, recently deported to Jordan from the United States, said he expected Arafat would release the detainees and stop arresting Hamas members.