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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                       March 26, 1996 V4, #56
All the News the Big Guys Missed

Who and What is Hamas?

By Adam Phillips (VOA-Washington)

Earlier this month, the Palestinian Authority announced the arrest of three more Hamas leaders as part of its continuing crackdown on the militant Islamic Palestinian group. Hamas has claimed responsibility for a series of devastating suicide bombs that have killed or maimed well over 100 Israelis thereby casting grave doubt on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Hamas is dedicated to destroying the peace process between the Israeli and Palestinian people and ultimately seeks the abolition of the State of Israel itself. But according to Gudrun Kramer, a professor of Islamic studies at Bonn University in Germany, there is more to the Hamas agenda than this.

"Hamas is very much an expression of Palestinian nationalism, the fight against the occupation, and the striving for some kind of what they think is an authentic framework of society and the state. They express themselves in Islamic terms, and they of course select those verses from the Koran that fit into their interpretation and world view. They are one way of interpreting the Islamic heritage and the Koran. They are by no means the strongest one. But of course for Israelis living within Israel, they are a danger."

Kramer says that what makes Hamas members especially dangerous is their certainty that "God is on their side."

"That gives them this sense of self-righteousness and assertiveness as well. Their political concepts are more interesting than one thinks. But it is not very immediate for them, not very imminent and urgent. What really characterizes them is their struggle against Israel. That really is their major concern, which also distinguishes them from Islamic movements in other Muslim countries such as Egypt, where the fight against Israel is much less central and crucial."

It is one of the Middle East's enduring ironies that the peace process is threatened by the Hamas brand of religiously-motivated violence when both Palestinian and Israeli societies are largely secular. But many observers point out that economic hardship -- and the fact that Hamas was excluded from the Oslo negotiations -- also accounts for much of Hamas' current strategy and its grassroots support among Palestinians.

"Many are people are frustrated [and desperate]. Their economic situation is miserable. They have no direction to look for, and Hamas offers that direction...The issue is inclusivity, which is how we call it in our field or in conflict resolution. Do we find a solution that includes all the parties or we include [only] some of them and have a deal between Peres and Arafat only?"

Mohammed abu-Nimer, a native Palestinian, is a professor of Middle Eastern studies and conflict resolution at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. He credits Hamas' social and educational programs, combined with Palestinian impatience over the pace of independence, for its following in the West Bank -- not its adherence to Islam rhetoric.

"As a political party, they provide an infrastructure of economic welfare and support for their followers. On the other hand, when Arafat claims that here is some sort of independence and some sort of direction for a state, Hamas can claim exactly the opposite and say what we ended up with is more tighter control, more seclusion and basically surrounding us with the Israeli military who basically built a huge prison out of Gaza and the West Bank.

It remains to be seen whether compromise might become a part of the Hamas agenda. Although Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has guardedly welcomed Arafat's crackdown on Hamas extremists, many Israelis have been enraged by the suicide bombings and the carnage they caused. Similarly, the temporary closing of the West Bank by Israel threatens to radicalize a once-moderate Palestinian public that depends on the Jewish state for its jobs and trade.

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