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Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 20:42 GMT
Hamas rises from the PA's ashes
Hamas fills a vacuum left by the Palestinian Authority

In part of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza, patches of rain-soaked sponge, decaying in the salty sea breeze, cover the floor of a conference room.

It was here the red carpet was once rolled out for visiting heads of state.

Israeli missiles have blown open the roof of the building and cracked its backbone. The Palestinian leader has not been here for about a year.

But out of the ruins of the Palestinian Authority, a new power is emerging - Hamas.

Show of force

Many Palestinians are convinced that the radical and seemingly intransigent group can no longer be tamed by Yasser Arafat's security forces, or by declarations from his battered regime.

Shielded by the night, members of an active Hamas military cell show the BBC their home-made bombs and grenades at a deserted building site in Gaza.

The gunmen hide their faces behind black masks. They are the new warriors of the Palestinian uprising. Branded terrorists by Israel and the West, for Palestinians, they are a legitimate and potent fighting force.

"We tried the political process and it failed," says the unit's commander. "Now armed resistance is the only option."

But Hamas is not just a military organisation.

In the besieged refugee camps of Gaza, women bring their babies to clinics set up by Islamic charities.

Young Hamas supporters
Children learn Palestinian doctrine at an early age
Much of Hamas's power stems from this social system, which stands in stark contrast to the inefficiency and corruption that plague government ministries.

There are also handouts.

Zayna Ahmed is one of many women who receive regular payments given to families that have lost fathers.

"This is a good service for the children," she says. "We know how much we get at the end of the month. We don't know of anything like this from the Palestinian Authority."

Young recruits

In kindergartens run by the Islamic charities every little seat is taken.

Here the teachers pass on a controversial vision of a Palestine that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, a Palestine that denies Israel's right to exist.

"Who is trying to take away your land?" the teacher asks a class of four-year-olds crowded around low round tables.

"The Jews," they shout. "Will you let them?" she asks. "No," they respond.

It is a position that seems to allow no compromise.

Abdel Aziz Rantissi
Abdel Aziz Rantissi might accept a truce
But does it really? Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi explains.

"The main aim of the intifada (uprising) is the liberation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, and nothing more," he says. "We haven't the force to liberate all our land.

"It is forbidden in our religion to give up a part of our land, so we can't recognise Israel at all. But we can accept a truce with them, and we can live side by side and refer all the issues to the coming generations."

In Israel that offer is drowned out by the wail of ambulance sirens.

Hamas is responsible for the vast majority of those killed in suicide attacks. Most Israelis believe the truce proposal is a lie.

But one, at least, does not.

Middle East Professor Avraham Sela says the ceasefire offer shows Hamas is going through the normal evolution of a radical movement.

"Hamas in this sense is not that much different from the PLO," he says.

"The PLO went through the same process of what we call pragmatisation since the 1970s.

"The fact that in Israel there are not many people who are willing to understand and accept that this is even a possibility is really the tragedy about the whole Israeli policy with regards to this movement."

Israel particularly distrusts Hamas because of its extremist religious views.

It packages its message in images of holy war. Especially disturbing is its glorification of suicide bombers as Islamic martyrs.

Flexible ideology

But there are those who believe that here too there is room for compromise, such as Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian academic who has written a book about Palestinian Islamic groups.

"The movement has an ideology and doctrine which is very flexible," he says.

"For instance if Hamas needs to provide doctrinal cover to a truce, it can. The leaders of the movement can find the appropriate religious decree to provide cover for any political decision."

What is undisputed is the growing strength of Hamas two years into the intifada.

It has become a force that cannot be ignored. Its rising popularity also suggests it cannot be suppressed.

That may make peace more difficult.

But without consent from Hamas, many Palestinians believe no lasting solution will be possible.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Barbara Plett
"These are the new warriors of the Palestinian uprising"

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03 Dec 01 | profiles
11 Oct 02 | Middle East
19 Sep 02 | Middle East
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