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Hamas: A study in contrasts

By Matthew Chance

Hamas leaders, such as Sheik Yassin, have said they are willing to consider a truce, if Israel withdraws from Palestinian land.
Hamas leaders, such as Sheik Yassin, have said they are willing to consider a truce, if Israel withdraws from Palestinian land.

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(CNN) -- For many, it is made up of terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel, the main obstacle on the so-called road map to peace. For many others in the occupied territories and across the Arab and Muslim world it is a legitimate organization that fights a brutal military occupation and extends a helping hand and social welfare to Palestinian people.

Hamas fighters and suicide bombers strike terror in the heart of Israel and the occupied territories, killing Israeli soldiers and civilians alike.

Ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza is their aim, and one that is widely supported among Palestinians. Destroying Israel remains the official long-term goal of Hamas.

Hamas leaders, though, such as paralyzed cleric Sheik Yassin, have long argued they are willing to consider a truce, or a "hudna," if Israel withdraws from Palestinian land.

"Everyone wants to achieve a decisive victory, but is Israel ready to compromise and give Palestinians their rights and their independence?" Yassin says from his wheelchair. "They can decide if there is war or if there is peace".

Hamas' attempts to match Israeli military might -- regularly firing makeshift Qassam missiles into Israel from the cover of orange and olive groves in Gaza -- have never been very effective.

But its far more devastating suicide bombings, such as the one that left 17 Israelis dead in Jerusalem on June 11 and the many before that, define Hamas as one of the world's most ruthless militant groups.

"First of all, let us say that is not good we have to do this," says Ismail Abu Shanad, a senior Hamas political spokesman in Gaza. "But war is war. Israelis are in a war against us and our people are in self-defense, so they react."

Hamas violence is accompanied by an equally zealous commitment to charity.

In Gaza's impoverished suburbs, those in need -- and there are many -- collect food from centers set up by Islamic charities.

Much of Hamas' power stems from this social system that stands in contrast to the inefficiency and corruption that plagues the Palestinian Authority.

"The government gives us nothing," says one woman struggling with her child and a sack of rice from a Hamas-backed charity. "We are lucky to have this place."

In the classrooms of Islamic kindergartens in Gaza, the young are drilled in religious beliefs. Teachers, their faces covered by veils, say they don't preach hatred. But, they say, all the children here already know Israel as their enemy.

Israel says Hamas schools lead the way in inciting hatred in Palestinian youngsters toward Israelis.

"The way forward is for Palestinians to realize that suicide bombers and this whole approach of violence has harmed the Palestinian cause," says M.J. Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Institute in London. "The trouble is that there is too much support for the policy of violence not just among Palestinians but also within the wider Arab world."

Palestinian security officials say they are physically unable and politically unwilling to crack down on Hamas. Israel says it will crush Hamas, if the Palestinian Authority does not.

Israeli assassination strikes on Hamas leaders, say Israeli officials, are putting the group under intense pressure. Palestinian security officials say the killings are making it more unlikely a cease-fire agreement will be reached.

Some Palestinians say tempting Hamas members to turn away from violence and toward a responsible role in government -- to co-opt them -- may be the best way to achieve lasting peace.

"We need unity of decision and this cannot be realized except by getting all these political forces into one body that we call the national unity leadership, where issues can be discussed in detail and then resolutions can be adopted democratically, " says Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, former chief Palestinian negotiator at the Madrid peace talks of 1991.

"Then every party would be committed to one resolution, including Hamas."

Whether Hamas will join such a government -- and honor a much debated truce that might give the U.S.-backed road map peace plan a chance -- is now the point of fierce debate within the group.

Whether Hamas will even get a chance to join a unity government is another question. President Bush said on Wednesday "In order for there to be peace, Hamas must be dismantled." Hamas has long been on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations.

Few are optimistic, but the coming weeks could decide the road Hamas, and Israeli-Palestinian peace, is to take.

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