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Briefing: The motives and aims of Hamas

Western nations call it a terrorist organization. To Palestinians, it's a legitimate elected government, a resistance movement, or an oppressive usurper. So just what is Hamas?

By Correspondent / May 13, 2009

Lebanon: Palestinian woman and child pass Hamas posters in Shatila, a refugee camp near Beirut. In top posters: Ismail Haniyeh, Hama's prime minister in Gaza.

Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

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What are the origins of Hamas?

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Hamas emerged as the Palestinian wing of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987 and is the largest Palestinian militant organization. An Arabic word that means zeal or enthusiasm, Hamas is also an acronym for the group's official Arabic name, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Its goal is to "liberate" Palestinian territories from Israeli occupation, and it has launched rockets and suicide bombers in pursuit of that end. The US, Israel, and the European Union consider it a terrorist group. But its military wing is not its only operation. Hamas also runs a large social services network and a political wing. In 2006, it participated in legislative elections for the first time and won a majority of seats, defeating Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party. International donors, which provide much of the Palestinian Authority's budget, cut off aid when Hamas refused to recognize Israel's right to exist.

In 2007, Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza after a violent conflict, leaving the Palestinian territories divided, with Fatah controlling the West Bank.

What does Hamas believe?

Hamas says the land of Palestine is a God-given endowment to the Palestinians. Its long-term goal is the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state on all of historical Palestine. This vision leaves no room for Israel. Recently, however, leaders have indicated they'd accept a truce with Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state on part of Palestine if Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders and Palestinian voters approve the move in a referendum.

"There are mixed messages," says Glenn Robinson, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "If they say they're willing to accept a two-state solution ... but, at the same time, they say that they expect Israel to be destroyed in the future, and they themselves will never recognize Israel, that leaves room for people to say that this is kind of a temporary cynical thing until they gain the upper hand."

Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at Sweden's National Defense College, says that, in the long run, Hamas will not compromise. "It's in the charter of Hamas that Palestine is a sacred right," he says. "It's not up to temporal leaders to be able to negotiate away that right."

Who leads Hamas?