The Two Faces of Hamas: Terror And Philanthropy

Fighting Israel and PLO, the militant Islamic group wins converts

WITHIN hours of the bomb blast that killed 23 civilians in Tel Aviv last week, a man entered Gaza's Palestine Mosque during midday prayers and claimed responsibility in the name of the military wing of the Islamic group Hamas.

But the reaction of the worshipers was subdued compared with their reaction in the mosque the week before when a man praised Hamas's military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam, for its kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, later killed in a bungled Israeli attempt to free him.

And in the streets of this overcrowded Palestinian homeland, many people strongly condemned last Wednesday's gruesome bus bombing of ``innocent people.''

The Koran, Islam's holy book, condemns taking the lives of innocent civilians even in a holy war, such as the one Hamas advocates against Israel in its pursuit of an Islamic state.

But the Tel Aviv attack, the 12th suicide bombing carried out in the name of Hamas, shows only one side of the militant Islamic group that has achieved a skillful mix of philanthropy and terror in pursuit of its political and religious goals.

Hamas is an efficient organization deeply rooted in the impoverished communities of Gaza and the West Bank, where it has won over an estimated 15 to 25 percent of Palestinians through its work in education, health, and social welfare.

Hamas is also flexible when it comes to strategy - apparently forsaking their goal of an Islamic state by saying it will accept a truce with Israel if Israel accepts their demands.

In a statement sent to news organizations Saturday, Hamas indicated that the Tel Aviv bomb was the final act of revenge for the massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers by a radical Israeli settler in Hebron on Feb. 25.

The statement threatened further attacks only if Israel insists on destroying the homes of Hamas activists. And it spelled out its conditions for peace, including Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza, the end of the crackdown on Hamas, and the release of its founder and spiritual mentor, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and other prisoners.

Hamas, an offshoot of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, emerged during the early stages of the Palestinian uprising in 1987, when Brotherhood leaders perceived the need to enter nationalist politics to prevent the Islamic youth from flocking to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which they perceived as more secular. The Israeli government initially allowed Hamas space to develop because it suited Israel to undermine the popularity of the PLO.

``Hamas is a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, but now it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is a wing of Hamas,'' Bir Zeit University political scientist Ziad Abu-Amr told the Jerusalem Post. ``People think that Hamas is the Islamic movement as a whole.''

Hamas has successfully exploited the glaring weaknesses of the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA) - set up in July to run self-rule in Gaza and Jericho - which has been unable to demonstrate many benefits from the peace accord.

The military wing was formed in 1990 and played a major role in assassinating Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel before turning its arsenal against Israel.

Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian who directs the Gaza Comunity Mental Health Program and is an authority on Hamas, says that the rise of Hamas was linked to its skill in exploiting the culture of defeat in the Palestinian community.

He said that with the failure of the political leadership in the Arab world, Palestinians were turning to the fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran offered by Hamas. ``We, the Arabs and Palestinians, are alienated from the Arab leadership. When people feel helpless and depressed they turn to more potent symbols,'' Dr. Sarraj says.

``The Palestinians put all their hopes in a liberated Palestine. Only now are they realizing that the dream is going to die. That is why there are so many attacks and so much reaction,'' he adds.

In line with its grass-roots strategy, Hamas boycotted the PLO-dominated PA. But it had agreed to participate in Palestinian elections.

The PA, which arrested 300 Hamas activists after the kidnapping, has found that the fledgling Palestinian police and security apparatus is incapable of a sustained crackdown on the group.

``Hamas is not living in another world,'' PA official Sofian Abu-Zaida told the Monitor.

``Hamas is living with us. Arresting members of Hamas could mean arresting our brothers and our cousins,'' he said.

Israeli security has conceded that cracking down on an organization that operates in tight disconnected cells, has substantial funding from abroad, and support among locals presents severe military and intelligence problems.

But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin insists PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat rein in Hamas.

``If you really want to pull the rug from beneath Hamas, you must solve the problem of the settlements and the prisoners,'' Mr. Zaida said, referring to the continued presence of Israeli settlers in Gaza and the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinian activists in Israeli jails.

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