We waited on the beach to meet a killer. The man we had come to see carried out murder operations for Hamas, the militant organization bent on reclaiming all of historic Palestine from Israel. We parked our car in a designated spot so his watchers could check that we hadn’t been tailed. As the sun dipped into the sea lapping the Gaza Strip on a steamy night last June, the killer was cooling off with a swim. For a wanted man, he seemed rather audacious, relaxing unarmed on the crowded seashore.
But though he appeared at ease, he took meticulous precautions against Israeli agents. Two bodyguards drifted over to surround him while he toweled off and dressed, and then they climbed into the backseat of our car beside him. We were told to switch on the air-conditioner so the windows would turn opaque with steam as he explained why he had chosen to live an assassin’s life. “It’s not a hobby to kill, you know,” said Mohammed, which, of course, was not his real name. “When we attack, the voice of the Palestinians is heard. We are sending a message to say, ‘We are here.’ If we stop, no one will care about us.”
The killer had an attractive, open face and an engaging manner. But he was unwavering in his convictions and certain that his cause would prevail in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered no apologies for all the deaths Hamas has caused in more than a decade of armed struggle or for the collapse of every attempt to negotiate a peace. Hamas, he said, had “evened the balance of terror,” and he would keep killing Israelis “until God decides.”
His end came quickly. Two months after I met Mohammed, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv printed a deck of cards showing 34 Hamas leaders targeted for assassination. Mohammed, his face a blank silhouette, was the jack of spades, No. 9 on the list. Two days later, an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship located Mohammed’s walkie-talkie as he sat in a car about 100 yards from where I had met him. “It was his one hobby, to swim,” Mohammed’s brother later told me. “His fate was to die by the sea.” The helicopter launched at least three Hellfire missiles as the four men in the car tried to flee. Afterward, there was little of Mohammed to bury besides his head. His real name, I learned, was Ahmed Ishtawi, a top commander in Hamas’ clandestine military wing, dead at age 24.
Nothing Israel has done — not the incursions, demolitions, lockdowns, land confiscations or even what are called “targeted assassinations,” like the strike on Ishtawi — has broken the will of Hamas. The target list grows longer, not shorter. Last week the Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attempted to deliver Hamas the most punishing blow yet, by approving the assassination of the group’s founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. For Israel, the killing of Yassin, 66–a quadriplegic who was being wheeled out of his neighborhood mosque in Gaza City after dawn prayers on Monday when he was obliterated by an Israeli missile — was a long-overdue hit on the supreme leader of a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli citizens. But the killing provoked a torrent of rage among Palestinians that rippled through the Arab world. Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, vowed, “We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere.” And to much of the world, the depravity of the conflict was highlighted by the televised images of a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Nablus, where a semi-retarded 16-year-old boy strapped with explosives was apprehended by Israeli police just before he would have blown himself up.
Sharon is intent on reshaping the conflict to suit Israel’s design. Eliminating Yassin was a tactical show of strength as the Prime Minister embarked on a plan for unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians, a strategy driven by his refusal to seek a negotiated peace as long as Yasser Arafat leads them. Sharon has announced plans to evacuate most of the 7,500 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip by as early as next year and build a West Bank security barrier that would leave the Palestinians to fend for themselves on the other side. Sharon and the Bush Administration are worried that Israel’s unilateral withdrawal will be greeted as a reward for terrorism. The militants of Hamas certainly scent in it a victory for their policy of violence, the only language that they believe Israel understands. And so before Israel goes, Sharon’s aides say, he believes he must smash Hamas to show Palestinians — and right-wing Israelis — that he isn’t just running away. “We have to fight terrorism,” Sharon told reporters last week. “Until then, nothing else can be achieved.”
But in the short term, few expect that the killing of Yassin will do anything to deter Hamas, which derives most of its power not from individual leaders but from the appeal of its ideas to a generation of despairing Palestinians. Even before Yassin’s death provided them with a fresh excuse for armed attacks, leaders of Hamas were predicting that in advance of the Gaza pullout their militants would step up attacks on Israeli forces and against the Israeli homeland.
Some officials in Israel and the U.S. fear that the withdrawal poses a formidable risk: it could open the way to a Hamas take-over in Gaza from the failing rule of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, or possibly a Palestinian civil war. But Hamas leaders tell TIME their organization has no intention of stepping in to replace the Authority officially so long as Israel continues to occupy any of the disputed territory, and it has “forbidden” a fratricidal struggle for control.
To the outside world, Hamas’ weapons of choice are as morally repugnant as they are tactically futile: each ruthless suicide bombing, drive-by shooting or rocket salvo on Israeli targets guarantees an equally lethal Israeli response. Sharon proposed the execution of Yassin at a March 16 meeting of his security cabinet, two days after Hamas suicide bombers, the first in recent years from Gaza, killed 10 Israelis near the port of Ashdod. Hamas leaders have been in hiding since last August, when the group broke a seven-week summer cease-fire with the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem bus. After that attack, Israel announced that leaders of the group’s political wing, as well as its militants, were now “marked for death.” Israeli forces subsequently assassinated a relatively moderate Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, and wounded another, Mahmoud al-Zahar, by bombing his residence. Now Israeli security officials say every single member of Hamas is on Israel’s hit list, starting with Rantisi, Yassin’s successor. “We dealt them a blow,” Cabinet minister Uzi Landau told TIME. “But if we stop here, it might be counterproductive. We should make them sweat a little.”
Hamas has few friends in the world: it long ago lost the war of perceptions. Even though in 1967 the U.N. declared Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be illegal and all Western governments agree that the Palestinians deserve a homeland, Hamas’ assaults on civilians have tainted its case. The U.S. has officially outlawed the group. Washington contends Hamas’ actions are a prime obstacle to resolving the 56-year conflict pitting Palestinians against Jews for the land they both claim. President George W. Bush has demanded that Hamas be “dismantled” as a prerequisite to moving ahead on his road map for peace in the Middle East, and he insists that Arafat’s Palestinian Authority do the job. The weakened Authority’s failure to do that has stopped the road map in its tracks.
But Hamas won’t go away. Despite constant losses, the group has shown remarkable powers of regeneration. An ever growing portion of the Palestinian population backs the movement, as the thousands of sympathizers accompanying the slain sheik to his grave attest. Despairing of a better future, people increasingly share the view that attacks, even suicidal ones, on any Israelis are all they have left as acts of resistance to armed occupation. The bloodshed and economic devastation brought on by the intifadeh, or uprising, launched in 2000, together with Israel’s U.S.-blessed campaign to eviscerate Arafat’s power, have broken down law and order in much of the territories, leaving Hamas the most disciplined outfit around. Today Hamas’ influence is as powerful as any in Palestinian society.
From afar, militants like Ishtawi might seem like little more than a bunch of armed zealots with a penchant for senseless violence. But Hamas’ hold on the Palestinian imagination is far more complex, rooted in its ability to offer pride to a wounded people and, on a more practical level, social services that the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority doesn’t deliver. Hamas the violent militant movement is hard enough to confront. Hamas the do-gooding social-work organization is a doubly perplexing challenge. “Hamas,” explains a young Gaza City man donning his shoes after Friday prayers, “reflects what Palestinians want.”
It is tempting in the post-9/11 world to assume that all groups labeled terrorist are alike, made in the image of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. But the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic acronym Hamas (which translates as “zeal”), is not an international organization of hate committed to bringing down the Western world. To date, Hamas has leveled its fire only against the occupying power, Israel. While religious faith is fundamental to membership in Hamas, and its philosophy takes root in the Islamist precepts of jihad and martyrdom, much of the world agrees in the justness of the aspiration for a national homeland for the Palestinians.
But Hamas has taken the Palestinian dream to extremes. Since its birth under the guiding hand of Sheik Yassin in the early months of the first intifadeh 16 years ago, Hamas has stuck to a hard-line charter that calls for the expulsion of the “Zionist invaders” from all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The group wants to establish an Islamic state in this territory through jihad, or holy struggle. It considers Arafat and other less strident Palestinian leaders to be collaborationist sellouts. Though Hamas has a political face, it has built its strength on the terrorist tactics employed by the clandestine military wing and on the blood it sheds. In the past three years, Israel says, Hamas has been responsible for 425 attacks that took the lives of 377 people. The cruel practice of suicide bombing is its prime weapon.
Not all “martyrs,” though, blow themselves up: many deliberately put themselves in range of Israel’s guns. Take Tito Massoud, 36, a Hamas militant who was assassinated by the Israeli military last summer when low-flying Apache helicopters fired seven missiles into his car as he sat in evening traffic in the Gaza City market. For years Israel had identified Massoud as a major figure in Hamas’ military wing, the underground Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade. He took up the cause of Palestinian liberation as a stone-throwing youth in Gaza when the first intifadeh erupted in 1987. He regularly attended the local mosque, where the preachings of Hamas filled Friday prayers. He came to regard it, his brother told me, as the organization that could “fulfill his dream.” Massoud joined up and gradually moved from activist to the military wing, conducting hit-and-run raids against occupation troops in Gaza and later specializing in explosives and rocket development. Israel first learned of him when he took part in a 1995 attack on an Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) position that left two soldiers dead. One of his colleagues was captured and, under interrogation, revealed Massoud’s name.
Massoud took up the life of a fugitive. When he stopped sleeping at home and disappeared for days at a time, his family realized his calling. They accepted the risk he ran. “It’s a noble choice he made,” says Massoud’s brother Khadir. “We knew this road would end either in victory for Palestine or death and he would go to heaven. Both ends are good.”
Palestinian factions often jockey to lay claim to nonmilitant “martyrs” as a way to expand their base by showing their deep-pocketed generosity. But Hamas does the same for slain fighters in a well-oiled campaign to turn every death to its advantage. One unit arrives at the morgue with a loudspeaker van to play Hamas’ famous funeral song. Another unit organizes volunteers to carry the body, draped in a green Hamas flag, to the dead person’s house, then to the mosque and then to burial. For Muslims, accompanying the body earns points in heaven. A third unit goes to the dead militant’s home to set up the mourning tent and prepare refreshments for the crowds who will come to show their respects over the next three days. When Hani Abu Shkaila, a senior field commander, died in a shoot-out with Israeli soldiers in Gaza City last month, Hamas immediately took charge, just as it has done for many others. Abu Shkaila’s wife and 3month-old son, like the family of Massoud, will receive a Hamas stipend for food, clothing and schooling until the children grow up. A Hamas man delivers the prerecorded farewell messages that many fighters prepare. Tito Massoud’s called for eternal struggle. “Only fighting will bring back our rights,” he said to his family from the grave. “That is the road you must take to liberation.”
Dying is a way to emphasize that Palestinians will never stop fighting for their cause. That, Hamas preaches, is a strength greater than all Israel’s military hardware: the bloodshed will help liberate the land, turning lost lives into a badge of honor and giving some meaning to grief. Abu Shanab, the political leader assassinated last August, told me a few weeks before his death that suicide attacks are an expression of human dignity in a situation that seems hopeless. “We show Israel we refuse to accept their occupation lying down,” he said. In the creed of Hamas, suicide bombs are the most potent weapon Palestinians can wield against a better-armed enemy. The killings make Israel understand, Rantisi told me last summer, that “force will not defeat the Palestinians. Ever.” Palestinians know “we’re not winning the war,” says Raji Sourani, a human-rights lawyer in Gaza. “But at least we died trying. It’s all about not being the ‘good victim.'”
Despite the deaths of more than 2,400 of their kin since this intifadeh began in September 2000, Palestinians are little closer to the dream of an independent state. Yet there seems to be no shortage of young Palestinians willing to die for the cause. Even though Israel routinely kills or captures militants, Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigade is always able to replenish its ranks. Its actions inspire the admiration of Palestinians who feel that violent resistance gives them back some of their lost self-esteem. At a demonstration in downtown Gaza, I met a skinny 12-year-old who had wrapped his head in a homemade Hamas band. He carried a green Hamas banner proclaiming AL-QASSAM BRIGADE WILL TEAR UP EVERY MAP NOT WRITTEN BY THE BLOOD OF MARTYRS. When I asked what he wanted to be when he grows up, the boy answered: “Qassam, Qassam, Qassam.” Why? “Because we believe in Palestine.” The militants have become the only heroes Palestinians have.
You can’t just volunteer to join al-Qassam, though. Hamas’ secrecy seems to enhance its appeal. Only the so-called political wing has a public face. Everyone knew Sheik Yassin as Hamas’ founder and spiritual head, the only cleric in the pantheon of Palestinian leaders. They know a few of the other out-front elite, like Rantisi, a pediatrician and Islamic ideologue who had been Hamas’ No. 2; al-Zahar, a surgeon who teaches at Gaza’s Islamic University and also leans toward the relative hard line; and the much lamented Abu Shanab, who reflected Hamas’ more moderate side. Everyone is aware of Musa Abu Marzook and Khaled Mashaal, two tough decision makers who help run Hamas from increasingly constricted exile in Damascus, and the more pragmatic Ismail Haniya. But after them, Hamas is deliberately obscure. Almost no one knows the identities of the operational militants until they’re caught or killed. Al-Qassam men don’t show off; they don’t swagger. Ishtawi’s brother knew Ahmed was a militant, but his brother had no knowledge of Ahmed’s stature or deadly exploits until he read the leaflet that boasted of them, published by Hamas after Ahmed’s death.
Hamas is divided and subdivided into endless compartmentalized cells responsible for discrete tasks: recruitment, planning, weapons development, operations, security. Apart from a few top guns like Ishtawi, who was an overall operations commander and liaison to West Bank Hamas groups, cell members know nothing about units outside their own. In Gaza, when a cell is decapitated, fresh leaders are ready to spring into place. “Even if Sheik Yassin got killed,” a Hamas activist told me last month, “Hamas is a big organization now and even he can be replaced. When a leader is killed, it makes us all tougher and ready to pass the torch to fresh fighters.” Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, head of research and intelligence for the I.D.F., agrees the group is impossible to contain. “Say they have 150 in the West Bank today involved in terror,” he says. “Even if we kill the ones we know about, tomorrow they’ll have 150 more.”
Israel says the distinction Hamas makes between its political and military wings is fictitious. And Sharon’s aggressive campaign of assassination, targeting Hamas from top to bottom, including the formerly immune political figures, has altered Hamas’ behavior. Militants, for example, have stopped going to the hospital when a confrere is injured because Israel will monitor the place to pick up their trails. Unable to use phones or cars, they communicate by encrypted e-mail or in hurried personal rendezvous. The impact on Hamas’ public leaders has been even more dramatic. Last September, al-Zahar’s house was flattened by an Israeli bomb that wounded him and tore his son to pieces. Now he, Rantisi and Haniya, another of the political brain trust, live in hiding. They have left home to go into safe houses in Gaza’s warren of refugee camps where Hamas supporters are eager to shelter them. The leadership no longer travels in cars but walks, sticking to back alleys instead of main arteries. The bosses do not answer incoming calls; they use fresh cell phones with batteries and SIM cards that can be removed when they want to place a call. The political heads don’t attend “martyrs'” funerals, as they used to, and their rare public appearances take place mainly on television. Before, an activist tells me, the leaders gave the broad mass of the movement moral support by appearing in public. Now they give moral support by hiding, because Hamas’ people feel their leaders are safe.
The dirty work of Hamas is devised and executed by killers like the man I knew initially as Mohammed. When I met him the first time, on a downtown Gaza City street, the meeting had been arranged to look like a casual encounter as we walked amid the regular Hamas rally after Friday noon prayers. He was worried I might be a spotter for Israeli military hit teams who employ informants, sometimes unwittingly, to lure targets into range. But he felt comfortably anonymous among the noisy, armed Hamas partisans.
At the exact time specified, a man with dark-smudged eyes and the thin tracings of an Islamic beard approached me. Mohammed, 24, looked strong and loose limbed beneath a plain tan shirt and dark pants and proved surprisingly candid about his clandestine career. He said he had a university degree and a regular job as an accountant, and a wife who blessed his potential death prior to their wedding six months before.
The initial operations of his cell were amateurish, he conceded. When darkness fell, his little group would don camouflage outfits and black face masks, strap on AK-47s with three or four magazines apiece, grab a few hand grenades or rockets and head for the fringes of one of the 20 Israeli settlements laced into the Gaza Strip. Sometimes they would hit something, often not. “We’d try to shoot settlers or the soldiers guarding the houses. Or we’d fire Qassams at them,” he said, referring to the crude short-range rocket called the Qassam II that Hamas began making in 2002.
As their skills improved, cell members began to map out more sophisticated attacks. They would mark a target — an Israeli tank, say — and reconnoiter its movements until they knew its daily routine. Then Mohammed would convene a brief, secret meeting in a mosque with a higher-ranking commander to present the plan and request necessary armaments. Mohammed would then leave a message in a dead drop for a bombmaking unit to supply the handmade remote-control explosives Mohammed’s men would use. Once, Mohammed recalled, he planted a mine and stayed for three days in a nearby hideout, holding the firing fuse until the chosen tank came by and he blew it up. Mohammed was particularly proud of the killing of a settlement resident that took four months to plot, and required his team members to disguise themselves as Orthodox Jews. As ranking members died, Mohammed moved up to management. He took charge of a cell, planning broader tactics and approving operations inside the tightly guarded perimeters of the Gaza Strip. Mohammed told me he was prepared to fight indefinitely, “100 years, if need be.”
His career turned out to be far shorter. The man I later learned was Ahmed Ishtawi had been unduly modest about his murderous accomplishments. According to his post-death biography, he was a natural leader who had developed a strong following during the three years he headed the student-council social committee at Gaza University, where he doled out charity to poor students. According to the leaflet his brother Hosam later showed me, Ahmed Ishtawi led the first successful destruction of an Israeli tank in Gaza and rose to assistant to the al-Qassam Brigade’s former general commander. He was in charge of bringing huge quantities of weapons into Gaza. After the big Israeli incursion of 2002 broke down Hamas’ strength in the West Bank, destroying chapters and freezing communications, he reconnected and remobilized the militant network there, passed them money, brought them up-to-date technology for making rockets and bombs, and served as their link back to the leadership in Gaza.
Hosam saw his brother the day his name appeared in Ma’ariv’s deck of cards. “He just laughed,” said Hosam, “and said, ‘Why not?'” As Ishtawi turned to leave that night — two days before his assassination — he gave some last advice to his brother. “He told me not to fight Israel because you hate the Israelis, hate the Jews. He said to fight because we have the right to liberate our lands and win our freedom.”
When an operative like Ishtawi dies, Hamas has teams of dedicated recruiters to replenish its army. In Gaza, I met one of them, a man who gave his name only as Walid. He arranged to talk to me one afternoon in a nondescript downtown office. For the past three years he has trawled the mosques of Gaza, looking for devout Muslims who might make good Hamas militants. You don’t apply for military duty in the al-Qassam Brigade; Hamas chooses you. Walid, who is 27, has never been a fighter. Indeed, with his thick glasses and reticent manner he resembles a well-educated accountant, which is, in fact, his public job. But Walid and scores like him play a critical role in replenishing the killing machine.
Walid looks for new recruits by talking to “people at the mosque about the current situation,” in other words, by preaching the Hamas message. When Walid spots an impressive candidate, he reports the person’s name and qualifications to a superior, who makes the actual approach. The division of labor ensures that if Walid were to be captured by the Israelis, he wouldn’t be able to identify those selected for militant operations.
Most are chosen first of all for their unswerving devotion to Hamas ideology. At a Gaza funeral last month, I encountered Salama Hamad. That is his real name, and he allowed me to use it since the Israelis already know all about him. He is a big, hulking man with supersize hands and graying hair cropped to the skull. At 32, he has been a member of Hamas for 15 years, a militant in al-Qassam for 12 and a fugitive the entire time. He has five children he sees “from time to time.”
His activities for Hamas “are what give me satisfaction and peace in my heart,” he said, explaining, “I work in making rockets.” Salama is in charge of lengthening the range of the five-mile Qassam II rocket, using information he gleans from the Internet and technical manuals that “outside sources” smuggle into the Strip. Since Israel uncovered and smashed many of Gaza’s munitions workshops last year, his cell crafts its rockets in a variety of small rooms inside civilian apartments scattered through pro-Hamas neighborhoods. Salama is eager to acquire more sophisticated technology, but one effort in that direction nearly killed him. He told me he bought a remote-controlled drone aircraft that could fire missiles from a smuggler who turned out to be an Israeli collaborator. The drone arrived at Salama’s workroom in two pieces: one part was clean but the second was booby-trapped. The explosion killed six cell members and sent Salama to the hospital for months. The wire I spotted in his ear is a souvenir: a hearing aid for his badly damaged sense of sound. When I noted that at 32, he had practically reached retirement age for a militant, Salama firmly shook his head. “The happiest day of my life was when I went back to this war after I was wounded,” he said. ” The day I am not active is bleak to me. The only thing that harms Hamas is those who do nothing.”
Hearts and Minds
If “Hamasland” has a capital, it’s Gaza City. It is a tortured place where the bitter past collides with an uncertain future. Concrete office towers sit on rutted dirt streets, half-built houses abut half-demolished houses, cell phones are as commonplace as horse carts, and a skyline of satellite dishes looms over the remnants of refugee camps. Hamas has flourished in the extremes of this cramped 141-sq.-mi. enclave that shelters 1.3 million Palestinians, most of them dispossessed since being driven here in 1948. Misery is pandemic: 70% are unemployed, 80% live in poverty, and 13% of the green, arable land has been bulldozed by Israel into barren fields of splintered tree stumps. The Israeli army said the trees hid militants when they fired rockets on the settlement. But the farmers of Beit Hanoun see a more cynical motive. “They do it,” said one, “to break our will.”
You have to spend time in Gaza to understand just how hermetic it is. For more than three years of the intifadeh, Gazans have been mostly locked down. When I walk alone down the empty, barbed-wire-rimmed pavement from the fortified Israeli side of the Erez checkpoint to the makeshift Palestinian entry point 500 yards away, I am watched by pillboxed machine gunners, and I feel a chilling sense of just how shut off from the normal world Gaza is. Once across the Palestinian line, one enters a cosmos where rumors, graffiti and leaflets define reality. Virtually all information is shaped by the propaganda of some faction. Television, except for those who can afford a dish, is limited to the Palestinian Authority channel, and the new local radio station is run by Hamas.
What Palestinians do see all too regularly are the constant depredations of the occupation, from petty to grand. According to a daily tally kept by Palestinian authorities listing Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, Feb. 8 was a typical day: 2 Palestinians killed; 35 wounded, including 14 children; 14 arrested; 16 residential and 11 business buildings damaged; 44 acres of land confiscated; 16 houses demolished; 7 cars damaged; 2 checkpoints installed; 1 new satellite settlement staked out; and 22 incidents of bombing or heavy machine-gun fire from I.D.F. troops. “The occupation has taught us humiliation and despair,” says a man at a funeral last month, “to the point where we have nothing to lose. Palestinians can’t be any more unhappy.”
Amid all that suffering, Hamas is one organization that makes people feel cared for. The group accomplishes that, not just by assuaging the Palestinians’ thirst to strike back at the oppressor but even more through effective social work. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority stole or frittered away much of the money that poured into the territories after the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Today their dwindling resources are too meager to carry out basic civic services. Hamas has been able to turn that to its advantage. In a little more than 15 years, Hamas charities have insinuated the movement into nearly every facet of life. Their generosity is potent. In the eyes of many people, Hamas is not just a name for several hundred gunmen and a few fiery spokesmen: at least 30% of the ordinary population in the occupied territories tell pollsters they support Hamas.
To understand that appeal, consider the plight of Hosman Ahmad Jamal and his wife Najah. Ahmad is 50 but looks 70. He doesn’t have a job but must support 15 children. He’s afflicted with severe asthma and prostate disease. I met the couple last summer outside the door of Sheik Yassin’s white stucco house on a nameless alley in Gaza’s shabby Sabra neighborhood. They had come to beg for money to pay Ahmad’s medical expenses. Najah had asked the Palestinian Authority for help but received nothing. Friends told her the sheik never refused anyone. So the couple walked to his house from Shijaya, about 3 miles away. They were immediately attended to. The bodyguard at Yassin’s door sent them down the block to Hamas’ main charity center with a chit authorizing funds for treatment and medicine. Najah concluded that only Hamas really cared about the welfare of ordinary Palestinians. “They are our brothers,” she said, “because they help the people.”
The movement has constructed a cradle-to-grave network that gently draws Palestinians into the Hamas fold. The group funds a vast range of bread-and-butter programs in education, family aid, orphan care and sports. It builds mosques, clinics and libraries. It runs an extensive distribution network for the needy. Just as important, the men of Hamas, from top to bottom, have won a reputation for scrupulous honesty. Dr. Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament, says that Hamas’ image as “clean”–in contrast to the corrupt Authority — as well as its ability to “fill in the gaps left by the Authority’s ineffectiveness,” have won it considerable backing, even from many who do not share its extremist positions. “It’s not just altruistic,” he adds. “Hamas knows how to use this source of power to build a solid base of popular support.”
Indoctrination often accompanies the handouts. Ameer Abu al-Amreen, 30, the administrative director of Hamas’ main charitable arm, al-Mujama al-Islami, proudly outlines all the services his office provides. “We begin in the kindergartens,” he said. This, he insisted, wasn’t proselytizing but standard Islamic dawa, or good works.
Of late, Hamas’ clean reputation has helped it make strong inroads into more sophisticated portions of the Palestinian population as well. Slates of Islamic candidates dominated by Hamas have taken control of the student councils at many universities across the territories. At Islamic University in Gaza City, the Hamas-led list took 83% of seats in a vote held a few months ago. Arafat’s Fatah Party withdrew at the last minute rather than experience humiliating defeat. I asked a law student, Ali Hejjy, 19, why Hamas was so popular. Because, he answered, “they run the university justly.” By that he meant that unqualified sons of officials were not given places, students were allowed to disagree with professors, and grades were not manipulated. That experience with Hamas, he said, led him to support its members in general “because they succeed politically and militarily.”
The same attitudes have brought Hamas new constituencies in the older Palestinian intellectual elite. A Hamas-led bloc recently won control of the Palestinian engineers’ union in Gaza City, where Rafiq Mikki, 45, a civil engineer, is the chairman. He counted himself a true believer in Hamas but said the rising tide of votes came from the 35% of “undecideds” who have turned to Hamas out of profound frustration. Their hopes for an independent future have been thwarted by everyone: the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, the U.S., the U.N. “No one helps us,” he said. “Hamas’ rising strength is testimony to the bitter disappointment of all Palestinians,” a way to say no to all the failures. Dr. Jamal alZebba, 47, another member of the engineers’ union, who was educated for 12 years in the U.S., voiced that protest with great passion. “I support the ones who do good for the Palestinian people. Fortunately or unfortunately, the only ones I see doing that now are Hamas. I, as an educated man, am not willing to give the others any more chances.”
Providing all those services to an impoverished population is expensive, though, and Hamas’ resources have been shrinking. AlAmreen conceded that since 9/11 set off the war on terrorism, the group is getting far less money from abroad. “America is making it hard for us,” he said. Iraq without Saddam Hussein no longer sends $25,000 bounties to families of suicide bombers. Under pressure from Washington, Saudi Arabia has stopped giving its $5,000 gifts as well, though the kingdom still donates that sum to families of civilians killed collaterally in Israeli strikes. Syria and Jordan have started policing the money crossing their borders. Last year the U.S. froze accounts of wealthy Hamas-linked charities and moved to sequester any private accounts it could find that belong to Hamas’ leaders. Washington is also pressing Europe — where charities tied to Hamas have allegedly become substitute conduits — to shut off this spigot. Still, Hamas can count on private Arab and Muslim donors fulfilling their religious duty to keep its services running. And even with less money, Hamas’ record for rectitude and social service continues to give it a powerful hold on public opinion.
Analysts have always brooded over what Hamas might one day do with its power. Sharon’s proposal to evacuate Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip may bring that day closer. Some officials in the U.S. and Israel — indeed, nearly everyone outside Gaza — are fearful of dire consequences for the withdrawal: chaos, civil war, a Hamas takeover turning Gaza into a mini terrorism state. But if Hamas’ appeal to Palestinians is more complex than many acknowledge, its intentions have grown more nuanced as well — at least until Yassin was assassinated.
Hamas leaders say they have no intention of formally taking charge of Gaza once the Israelis depart. The ostensible reason is their longstanding declaration that Hamas will not participate in the occupation by accepting a political relationship with Israel. “The Palestine Liberation Organization made a great mistake when they accepted the role of an authority under the occupation,” Rantisi told me by written interview last month. “This is the time for struggle and resistance and not for building authorities.” As long as the West Bank remains under Israeli control, “we will not participate,” he said, “and we don’t think of replacing the Palestinian Authority.”
But there is also a more pragmatic calculus for Hamas. Right now, it is the de facto power in Gaza but not the one responsible for actually governing it. Hamas doesn’t have the resources to replace the Palestinian Authority and would not get any international help. Instead, “they see themselves like Hizballah in Lebanon,” says Mohammed Taher el-Nounou, a Palestinian writer for a Persian Gulf newspaper, “a powerful state-within-a-state without the responsibilities of a state.” And, of course, like Hizballah, Hamas wants to preserve its military options for whatever the next era might bring. It wants to let Arafat’s Authority fight the political war while Hamas keeps the struggle at a boil. That is a reason many analysts in Gaza and in Israel predict that Hamas will, at least initially, greet an Israeli withdrawal with more attacks: to prove that Gaza alone is not enough.
In any case, the outside world will not take Hamas for anything but an implacable terrorist outfit bent on the elimination of Israel. And publicly, its leaders stick to the group’s hard-core aims. With the elevation of Rantisi, the last word among Hamas’ decision makers belongs to the most uncompromising firebrand in the leadership.
But the death and destruction of the past three and a half years have persuaded most Palestinians to settle for less than Hamas’ full territorial claims, which include what is now Israel. Although Palestinian society is traditional and conservative, few would want to live in an Islamic theocracy. Most just want the occupation to end and would be content to live side by side with Israel if they had a viable state of their own in the territory they inhabited in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem before 1967. That is almost exactly what the U.S. peace road map calls for, though of course it is the precise contours of the two-state solution that have eluded negotiators for so long.
No Hamas leader wants to go on record renouncing the organization’s strident charter, especially the hard-liners who now dominate Hamas’ board of directors. But last summer founder Sheik Yassin, in his elliptical way, sketched out for me how Hamas might consider a more accommodating solution. The sheik was cadaverously frail, and he had been ill for two weeks when I gained a brief audience at his house. His high-treble voice was so faint I had to lean awkwardly close to hear. But he remained the movement’s ultimate authority. While he leveled boiler-plate criticism at the “racist” Israeli state and the religious rationale for Hamas’ stand, he hinted there was room for compromise. In pursuit of Hamas’ goals, he said, “you don’t jump there in one jump.” Some can be achieved, he explained, through “stages, phases. We don’t have a problem reaching a phase suitable to the current situation and leaving the rest to history and future generations.”
By January, Yassin had turned those vague words into an official position. Hamas would never say it accepts Israel’s existence. But the Koranic rules of hudna, or cease-fire, allow for an indefinite halt in the armed struggle: once the Palestinians gain a state in the pre-1967 territories, Hamas could decide to end the violent struggle and leave it to future generations to decide whether it should ever be resumed. In one of his last public statements, recorded on the Hamas website in January, Yassin even hinted that a Gaza pullout could reopen the door to negotiations, something Hamas previously had consistently tried to thwart. “If the Zionist entity completely evacuates the Gaza Strip,” he said, “we can start a new phase of calmness in order to discuss the issues of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the prisoners and the refugees”–references to the longstanding list of items that negotiations are supposed to settle. Parliamentarian Abu Amr, for one, believes that “Hamas has modified its goals to convince people it is realistic and practical.”
But is it? Neither Bush nor Sharon nor sizable popular majorities in both their countries think so. “All of Hamas’ welfare and sermons and education and health care has one aim,” says Kupperwasser, the Israeli intelligence analyst, “to make people ready to participate in terrorist acts. As long as they convince Palestinians to look at suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs, instead of the roadblock to peace, Hamas is going to be successful.” And at the moment, Hamas’ power is unchallenged. Both Americans and Israelis believe that Arafat’s downtrodden Palestinian Authority has the means to dismantle Hamas but not the will, whereas Palestinians believe it has neither. “No one can finish Hamas,” says Rantisi. Al-Zahar put it in starker terms: if Arafat tries to crack down again, “we are going to defend ourselves with all means available, including guns.” Hamas leaders tell TIME emphatically that they will not allow a fraternal war to engulf Gaza. Said Rantisi: “Hamas has forbidden that from happening.”
Palestinian security forces in Gaza don’t want a battle either. Brigadier General Saeb Ajez, commander of military security in northern Gaza, says that taking on Hamas isn’t a realistic option. Riven by internal disputes and personal power struggles, and undermined by Israel’s campaign to strip Arafat of relevance, the Authority is weaker than ever. Its jealous assortment of security forces are at one another’s throats, not Hamas’. Nor, says the general, do his men have the firepower to prevail. “Would Israel allow us to have a battalion armed with tanks so we could really fight Hamas?” he asked. “No. We are not strong enough for Hamas to fear us.” Hamas, he says, “exists in the middle of the people. You can’t fight them without fighting your brothers.” Some Gazans love Hamas, others fear it. But potentially all contribute to a kind of “popular army” ready to take up stones or rifles to protect Hamas should the Palestinian Authority go gunning for them. Ajez for one thinks Sharon is trying to egg on such a battle: “Israel wants us to kill each other. Then who will they need to negotiate with?” He, for one, says he will not get involved. “I will go sit with my wife and tell the Prime Minister, ‘You take a weapon and fight them. Me, my men, we can’t do it.'”
For the time being, the strike against Yassin has pushed these matters aside and returned the focus of Hamas’ wrath to its true enemy. Whatever possibilities were percolating of Hamas considering a peaceful solution have been overwhelmed by the movement’s declaration of “open war.” The Sharon government too is consumed by the idea that might can prevail. When I asked Rantisi, the new leader of Hamas, whether he would accept a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he all but dismissed the notion. “Negotiations,” he said, “never achieved anything in favor of the Palestinians.” What continues to sustain Hamas are the ever-growing numbers of Palestinians who seem to agree with him.
— With reporting by Jamil Hamad, Aharon Klein and Matt Rees/Jerusalem