A look 'Inside Hamas'

How a group from the slums of Gaza became the power that rocked the Palestinian territories.

On April 6, 1994, Yehia Ayyash, one of the more elusive members of the Islamic Resistance Movement known by its Arab acronym Hamas, left an indelible mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The man whom former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called "the Engineer" dispatched a Palestinian named Raed Zakarneh on what would be a historic mission. When Mr. Zakarneh blew his car up, killing himself and eight Israelis at a bus stop in the Israeli city of Afula, he became Hamas's first suicide bomber.

The attack was retribution for a massacre perpetrated by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, who threw a hand grenade into a crowded mosque, killing 29 Palestinians.

And so Hamas literally exploded onto the world stage. Today, Israel and the US consider it a terrorist organization with which they refuse to negotiate.

Yet neither they – nor the rest of the world – can afford to ignore Hamas, particularly since the group's most recent historic feat: seizing control of the Gaza Strip and routing out Fatah, the main faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

So how did this marginal group, inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, grow from its shadowy beginnings in the densely populated slums of the Gaza Strip to first win a landslide victory in the January 2006 Palestinian election and now to hold complete control over all of Gaza?

Zaki Chehab's new book, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement, goes a long way toward answering such questions. Chehab's book not only explains the methodical rise of Hamas, but also offers insights into the group's psyche that go beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by so much of today's news coverage.

Chehab is a veteran Arab journalist who has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a quarter century and is now the London bureau chief for Al Hayat.

But he is more than that. Chehab is also a Palestinian who was himself born in a refugee camp, a credential that has allowed him unprecedented access to any number of high-level sources.

Through interviews with Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, the so-called "father" of Hamas, Chehab lays the groundwork for the group's evolution: "The first phase was to build institutions; charities and social committees which would open their doors to the young and old – anyone who could play a role in resisting the occupier," explains Sheikh Yassin.

The second, he told Chehab, was to work on "strengthening the roots of the resistance within every household in the West Bank and Gaza."

From there, it became possible to build a military that evolved from rock throwing to rocket launching and finally to establish a dialogue between Hamas and its Arab and Islamic neighbors.

Hamas saw success on all fronts, as Chehab explains in interviews with other key Hamas members who have managed to survive (avoiding the fate of Ayyash, the Engineer, who the author says was assassinated by Israeli intelligence) to lead it today.

But Chehab doesn't stop with an examination of the group's leadership. He moves on to probe its rank and file and offers the reader a glimpse of the poverty and anger that turn ordinary men and women into militants.

He talks to the mother of a young martyr who urged her son to take up arms at an early age. So enmeshed in her family's daily life is the fight against Israel that on their wall hangs a framed piece of barbed wire torn from a Jewish settlement.

Chehab watched as two Hamas members caught the elderly, grieving father of a suicide bomber in their arms as he collapsed from grief. Within minutes, they had persuaded him that this was not a loss but an honor. Such views, Chehab makes clear, are not the ravings of an isolated few. The Islamic Resistance Movement, he argues, is not going away, or not going quietly. It has broad and growing support among Palestinians, deep backing within the region, and impressive resilience.

"Inside Hamas" could hardly be more timely, although, written before the seizure of Gaza, it runs the risk of being overtaken by events. But that doesn't alter the force of Chehab's conviction: Hamas must be part of any regional negotiations.

"Attacking and isolating Hamas, as has been done," he writes, "is merely making the movement more popular."

Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor's Middle East news editor.

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