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What Is Hamas?

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006; 5:11 PM

Hamas is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, a Palestinian organization committed to eliminating Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state. Considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the West for its suicide attacks on Israel, it is popular among Palestinians for its network of schools, clinics and civic services, as well as its armed resistance to Israeli military occupation. The group is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based organization that has advocated Islamic government in the Arab world for 80 years.

Hamas came to prominence in the 1990s by rejecting the so-called Oslo peace process which sought to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In a series of deadly suicide bombings that killed hundreds of civilians, Hamas announced its intention to eliminate the Jewish state altogether. Israel retaliated by assassinating the group's founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and numerous top operatives who were immediately replaced.

Hamas entered electoral politics for the first time in 2004. In January 2006, Hamas candidates swept Palestinian parliamentary elections and took control of the Palestinian Authority. Western countries have since cut off most aid to the Palestinian government and redirected support to President Mahmound Abbas, leader of the Fatah party, and to non-governmental agencies working with Palestinians.

The Hamas-led government refuses to recognize Israel and renounce armed struggle, as demanded by Israel, the United States and Europe. Hamas has demanded Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, release thousands of political prisoners and recognize the right of Palestinians to return to communities absorbed by the creation of Israel in 1948.

There is debate within Hamas about how far to go in meeting Israeli and American demands. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh says Hamas's goal is the creation of a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders of West Bank and Gaza. The group's military wing, based in Syria, says it will only consider a long-term truce when Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

The tacit cease-fire between the Hamas-led government and Israel started to break down this spring, as militants from both Hamas and Fatah fired hundreds of home-made rockets from Gaza into nearby Israeli towns, causing few injuries but sowing fear and uncertainty. Israel responded with massive artillery and air attacks on suspected missile factories and launching sites, killing scores of civilians.

Hamas's capture of an Israeli soldier on June 29 marked a new tactic in the group's strategy for fighting Israeli military occupation. The militants are demanding the release of about 400 Palestinian women and teenagers held in Israeli jails in return for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Some observers say the Hamas abduction reflects the influence of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon. Hezbollah's leader obtained the release of hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jail in 2004 by handing over an Israeli businessman kidnapped in Beirut. While the two groups have deep religious differences, some experts say Hezbollah is now supplying Hamas with weapons, training and advice.

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