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Profiles Thursday, 19 October, 2000, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
Who are Hamas?
Hamas members
Hamas was born during the last intifada
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

Hamas, the main Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories, was born soon after the previous intifada erupted in 1987.

The organisation opposes the Oslo peace process and its short-term aim is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.

Hamas does not recognise the right of Israel to exist. Its long-term aim is to establish an Islamic state on land originally mandated as Palestine - most of which has been contained within Israel's borders since its creation in 1948.

Hamas rally
The organisation has strong support in Gaza
The grass-roots organisation - with a political and a military wing - has an unknown number of hard-core members but tens of thousands of supporters and sympathisers.

It has two main functions:

  • It is involved in building schools and hospitals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in helping the community in social and religious ways.
  • The military wing of Hamas - known as the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades - has carried out a series of bloody attacks against Israeli targets.

In February and March 1996, Hamas carried out several bus bombings, killing nearly 60 Israelis. It was also blamed for attacks in 1997 in Jerusalem which killed 15 people, and brought the peace process grinding to a halt.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinain Authority (PA) - the government-in-waiting if a Palestinian state is established - views Hamas as a serious rival, yet the Palestinian leader has tried to co-opt the movement into mainstream politics.

Sheikh Yassine
Sheikh Yassin is seen as a moderate face of Hamas
But his insistence that Hamas recognise the PA as the only national authority in the Palestinian territories and cease military operations against Israel has been resisted.

Hamas argues that to accept the PA would be to recognise the Oslo accords - which Islamist groups saw as nothing more than a security deal between the PA, Israel and the US, with the ultimate aim of wiping them out.

Despite a fierce offensive against the group in 1996, when the PA arrested some 1,000 Palestinians and took over mosques in Gaza, the PA has been careful not to drive Hamas underground.

'No civil war'

There were concerns this could breed violence that could provoke a collective repression against the Palestinians, which has been inflicted by Israel in the past.

Also, Mr Arafat would not want to be seen to be doing Israel's bidding by trying to destroy Hamas.

The leadership of the organisation has long been divided, with some emphasising Hamas' eventual absorption into the political scene as a legitimate opposition party.

After the 1996 clampdown, more moderate Hamas policymakers questioned whether the suicide attacks were worth the cost of repression.

Hamas bomb attack
Hamas has carried out suicide attacks in Israel
But others argued the military wing was necessary to protect the organisation against such repression.

As a result, the movement's leaders have tried, with little success, to get their followers to agree on a policy calling for military reprisals to what they would perceive as Israeli aggression but accepting coexistence with the PA.

The movement has long maintained that in the interests of Palestinian unity, it would not be drawn into a civil war with the PA.

Popular support

Hamas is particularly strong in Gaza, where the economic conditions are worse than the West Bank.

The spiritual head of the group is Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who despite his often fiery rhetoric is seen as the moderate face of the Palestinian Islamists.

The 64-year-old quadriplegic was released from prison in Israel in 1997, as King Hussein of Jordan's price for freeing Israeli Mossad agents after a bungled attempt to assassinate Hamas leader in Jordan, Khaled Meshal.

After his release, he devoted his energies to repairing damage to Hamas' educational and charitable institutions inflicted during the 1996 crackdown against the movement.

Although in theory based in the Palestinian territories, it was long viewed that the former Amman-based leaders were the real brains behind the movement's military arm.

They were allowed to operate in Jordan - where almost half the population is Palestinian - by the late King Hussein, because it gave him leverage over Mr Arafat.

But the group's headquarters was closed down by the king's successor, Abudullah, and senior figures expelled to Qatar.

Key stories




See also:

11 Oct 00 | Media reports
06 Oct 00 | Middle East
03 Oct 00 | Middle East
13 Oct 00 | Middle East
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