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The name arouses fear and loathing in Israelis reeling from deadly attacks, but Palestinians see the organization as charitable, worth their full support.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002
GAZA CITY -- Just a few hours before, a suicide bomber from the militant group Hamas had blown himself up on a bus in Haifa, killing eight Israelis. But as Mohammad Jadalla sat amid the squalor of the Al Shate refugee camp, he had only good feelings about Hamas.
His wife displayed a new blanket, bought with a voucher from Hamas. When she makes their meager meals, it is often with sugar and flour and oil from Hamas. Since a fire destroyed their furniture last year, the family has slept on foam mats, also from Hamas.
"They are always giving us support and things," said Jadalla, who has 12 children and no job. "I like Hamas; they are our people."
Hamas. Its very name ignites fear and anger in Israelis. They know it as a ruthless terrorist organization that has launched some of the deadliest attacks on Israeli soil -- including the horrific "Passover Massacre" that killed 27 -- in an effort to eliminate the Jewish state.
Palestinians see Hamas in a very different light. To thousands living in poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is a charitable organization that provides schooling for the young, food for the hungry, blankets for the cold.
And even Palestinians who don't rely on Hamas for day-to-day support view it not as a terrorist group, but as a legitimate political party fighting for the liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation. Hamas' stature has only risen in recent weeks as Israeli troops moved into Palestinian cities in the West Bank to destroy what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called "the infrastructure of terrorism."
"Hamas has never been so popular," says Raphael Israeli, a professor at Hebrew University and one of Israel's leading experts on the organization.
"It is at the height of its popularity. In the Gaza street, probably most of the people support Hamas and in the West Bank, half or close to that."
At an anti-Israeli rally in Gaza City last week, as many demonstrators waved the green flag of Hamas as carried the yellow flag of Fatah, the party of Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat. In their most recent student council elections, almost 75 percent of the 13,000 students at Gaza's Islamic University voted for Hamas candidates.
Hamas leaders, several of whom live in Gaza City, are such a part of the establishment that they routinely appear in public and freely mingle with university presidents, business owners and officials of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Relations between me and Hamas continue -- nothing has changed. I see them all the time," said Imad Al Falouji, who resigned as Hamas' spokesman six years ago to become the Palestinian Authority's minister of telecommunications.
The men who run Hamas say that Israeli "aggression," including the recent action in the West Bank, has strengthened Palestinian resistance, not crushed it. And they promise more "operations" -- suicide attacks -- unless Israel permanently withdraws from all areas it captured in the 1967 Mideast war and gives all Palestinian refugees the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.
"Yes, it's 100 percent certain operations will continue," said Mahmoud Zahar, whose tweed jacket and graying hair make him look more like a doctor -- which he is -- than a leader of a major terrorist organization.
The idea of ever negotiating with Hamas is abhorrent to Prime Minister Sharon and most Israelis. Acceding to its demands, they say, would destroy Israel as a Jewish nation and supplant it with a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Yet some observers think that under Hamas' uncompromising rhetoric there is room to maneuver.
Abdullah Hourant, founder of the Palestinian Institution for Political Studies in Gaza City, predicted Hamas would halt its attacks if Israel loosened its choke hold on Arafat and withdrew its troops from the West Bank.
"You have to give the Palestinian Authority some eggs in its political basket," he said. "After that, you can ask the Palestinian Authority to deal with Hamas. From my point of view, Hamas is ready to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority if (the authority) got something from Israel. Otherwise, Hamas will not cooperate with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Authority will be in a weak position to ask it to."
Israeli, of Hebrew University, said Palestinians should be encouraged to hold elections to replace their corrupt and ineffectual leaders, even if some of the winning candidates are members of Hamas.
"If you have Hamas who are elected and ready to negotiate with Israel, they will make sure their word is enforced," he said. "And if not, we're where we would be anyway. By trying to encourage a non-Islamic state (in the Palestinian areas), we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Hamas, an acronym for the Arabic words meaning "Islamic Resistance Movement," was born in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation.
Its goal has always been clear: to drive Israel out of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and give 3.9-million Palestinian refugees the "right of return."
"The intent now of every people is to re-establish a pan-Islamic state and Palestine will be part of that," said Zahar, the doctor and Hamas leader. "It takes time, but time is our medicine."
An offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has won grass-roots support the same way the brotherhood did: establishing itself as an incorruptible, populist alternative to a corrupt and autocratic regime.
Organizations like Hamas and the Brotherhood succeed as opposition groups "by conquering the hearts of the people, by being of the people, by the people and for the people," says Israeli, who has studied Hamas for years. "They have exemplary leadership, no corruption."
Although some Hamas leaders live well by Gazan standards, the man often referred to as the group's spiritual head, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, resides in a typically rough, ramshackle neighborhood of Gaza City. The street outside his drab concrete block house is nothing but sand. Posters of "martyrs" -- suicide bombers -- flank a rusting metal door.
Gaza is a crowded place, home to 1.1-million Palestinians. Many of them live in U.N. refugee camps established more than 50 years ago after Arabs left or were forced out of their villages in Israel during the nation's 1948 war of independence.
After the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, hope flourished that life would improve as Israel turned over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to Palestinian rule. But the newly created Palestinian Authority squandered millions of dollars, and little money trickled down to the average Palestinian.
Into the void stepped Hamas, which has made life a bit more bearable for Palestinians if ever more uncertain for Israelis. Through various clubs and associations, Hamas permeates many aspects of life in Gaza.
At 8:30 a.m. one day last week, dozens of children were playing in the courtyard of the Islamic Light Kindergarten, run by a Hamas affiliate. The school didn't want to let a reporter or photographer in: A European TV crew had questioned kids as young as 2 about Osama bin Laden and "showed us in a bad way as spreading terrorism," the public relations director explained. "This is not correct."
It was impossible to tell what, if anything, the children are taught here about Israel and the Palestinian resistance movement. But from a glimpse through an open gate, the kindergarten looked little different from most. There were no "martyr" posters or militant slogans on the walls; only brightly painted murals of Mickey Mouse and forest creatures. The children looked far cleaner than the thousands running unsupervised in the dusty streets of Gaza.
At the Islamic University, an official denied that the school gets any money from Hamas although Gazans will tell you without hesitation that it does. Some students receive help with their fees from Hamas associations, and it is clear that many students support the organization.
"I think most people like Hamas because it fights for their country," said Nura Hams, 19, a sweet-faced doctor's daughter and computer sciences major.
"They have to kill the Jews because they do very horrible things."
To some of Gaza's poorest residents, Hamas has more legitimacy than their government.
Mohammad Jadalla, who lives in Al Shate refugee camp, has been unable to work for years because of health problems. His only income is the $150 a month he gets from the Palestinian Authority because his 15-year-old son Medhat is a "martyr," killed last year while throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, Jadalla said.
Aside from that, he said, "The Palestinian Authority has never done anything for us."
"I like Hamas better," his wife, Reem, chimed in, offering guests tea sweetened with Hamas-supplied sugar. "It is more straight than the Palestinian Authority," she added, making a zig-zag motion with her hand to suggest Arafat's regime is crooked.
Hamas gets support from a variety of sources: contributions of food, building materials and other supplies from local businesses; donations from wealthy Muslims; and contributions channeled through private organizations, including some in the United States.
In December, the Bush administration froze the bank accounts and raided regional offices of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation because of its alleged ties to Hamas. The foundation, which described itself as the largest Muslim charity in America, said the $15-million it raised in the United States last year was spent entirely on humanitarian aid to Gaza and the West Bank.
But Hamas' single biggest backer is thought to be the government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used to contribute $100-million a year to the Palestinian Authority; when Arafat backed Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, the Saudis showed their displeasure by giving the money to Hamas, according to Israeli, the expert on the organization.
"Arafat lost it and they transferred the aid to Hamas," he said. Whether Hamas still gets the same amount is uncertain, but Israeli called such state-donated money "the most dangerous source" of support for the group.
Emulating Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas created an organizational structure that has served it well. It claims to have two wings -- the political wing, which includes Sheik Yassin and Dr. Zahar, and the military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, named after a Palestinian resistance leader who fought against the British and Zionists in the 1930s.
While Israel has assassinated senior Hamas military operatives, it has yet to target Yassin and the other political leaders.
"Hamas has a very smart formula . . . but it's all a whitewash," Israeli said. "If there's an act of sabotage, they say, "Don't touch me, I'm a doctor in the political wing.' Yassin may say he's political but he gives the orders and inspiration, no doubt about it. The Israelis and Americans have fallen stupidly into the trap -- for me he's every bit as much a terrorist as the rest."
Hamas military operatives work in small, scattered cells, making it hard, if not impossible, for Israel to ever stamp out the organization by force. And even if Yassin, who is 63, blind and uses a wheelchair, were to die tomorrow, "others will take his place," Israeli said.
"Cemeteries are full of "irreplaceable' people. There are so many hard-core, so many committed (Hamas supporters), you could kill thousands and in six months you would see them grow again."
-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To much of the world, the unremitting series of suicide attacks against Israelis have been the work of Palestinian terrorists. But that label hides the fact that several distinct organizations are behind the attacks. Here is a look at some of them:
WHO THEY ARE: A militant and political Islamic-based movement that grew out of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas -- the acronym in Arabic for Islamic Resistance Movement -- was founded after the start of the first intifada, the violent uprising that began in 1987 against Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Aside from terrorism, Hamas provides medical clinics, schools and youth clubs, libraries, orphanages, mosques and other social services.
WHAT THEY WANT: Hamas has a declared goal to scuttle the peace process and carry on a religious war, or jihad, against Israel. Ideally, it wants to dismantle Israel and create an Islamic state in all of former Palestine -- Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
STRENGTH: Hamas is most active in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Hebron. According to most polls, some 15 to 20 percent of the 3-million Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank politically support Hamas, but popular support is much more widespread. The Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, numbers between 200 and 500 hard-core members.
LEADERSHIP: Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 63, is its spiritual head. Yassin, released from prison by Israel in 1997, lives in Gaza. Khalid Meshal, based in Qatar, is the political leader. Other academics and activists form the core of the group's political leadership in the occupied territories. Yasser Arafat has some influence over Hamas.
FINANCING: Hamas operates on a budget estimated at as much as $100-million, with more than half the money spent on social and welfare services. The vast majority of the money comes from abroad, given as charitable contributions, many from Palestinian expatriates.
WHO THEY ARE: This radical subgroup of Arafat's secular Fatah organization is the newest, best-equipped and strongest of the current factions. It is tied directly to Palestinian security services. The Brigades is responsible for some of the deadliest attacks of late, including three that were carried out by female bombers.
WHAT THEY WANT: The Brigades' ideology is secular Palestinian nationalism rather than religious fundamentalism. It aims to push Israel into a cease-fire and to win major concessions if peace negotiations resume.
STRENGTH: Every Fatah member is a de facto member of the Brigades, with about 1,000 engaged in the military struggle. About 28 percent of Palestinians support the group.
LEADERSHIP: Regional field commanders answer to the West Bank Fatah chief, Marwan Barghouti.
FINANCING: Monetary support comes directly from the Palestinian Authority.
WHO THEY ARE: Smaller and more exclusively militant than its sister group Hamas, Islamic Jihad has carried out roughly a third of the suicide bombings over the past 18 months. Some of the more ambitious operations have been in combination with other groups.
WHAT THEY WANT: A full military confrontation that results in the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in what was once Palestine.
STRENGTH: Active militants number only 70 to 100. Support among the Palestinian population ranges from 5 to 10 percent.
LEADERSHIP: Nominally headed by Ramadan Shallah, a former director of World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a defunct think tank at the University of South Florida. Shallah is based in Syria.
FINANCING: Iran provides cash and Syria provides logistical assistance.
-- Sources: Associated Press, Cox News Service, New York Times, Time.