This is Hamas, in its own ominous words


Do words matter?

Should a declaration of principles be taken seriously?

Americans usually accept at face value the language in the country's fundamental documents, such as Thomas Jefferson's revolutionary words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In school, Americans learn that much of the country's history has revolved around sometimes violent efforts to live up to that language, and that American society is destined to keep making the attempt.

If words truly matter, if the intent of a political movement is evident in the words of its core documents, then the bold language in the 9,100-word charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, bode poorly for relations between Palestinians and Israelis. Hamas, a political and clandestine military organization, won a sweeping victory last month in parliamentary elections; that triumph, arguably, made Hamas the dominant power in Palestinian political life.

"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it," the Hamas charter says in its prelude. It is there quoting Hassan al-Banna, who as founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 is the Jefferson of modern Islamist parties. The Hamas charter borrows widely but leans heaviest on the Quran. And the charter's anonymous authors tailor its message to address what they believed to be the most pressing issue of the day.

"Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious," the charter says. "It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps. The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah's victory is realized."

Sheik Ahmed Yassin planted some of the seeds for Hamas through his preachings in the Gaza Strip in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, few Israelis took much notice of a Gaza building boom. Gaza - then as now a place of squalid refugee camps blending seamlessly into overcrowded cities - boomed with new mosques.

Israeli officials tacitly supported the boom. Israel saw Islam as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasser Arafat's PLO did not recognize Israel as a state; the PLO, proudly secular, carried out brutal attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Islam seemed more conservative, safer, less ambitious.

Hamas took the more radical course of marrying Islamic fundamentalism to Palestinian nationalism. By the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising, in December 1987, it emerged from the mosques as Gaza's most militant organization.

It is the willing inheritor of much of what the PLO and its dominant political party, Fatah, chose to abandon. Arafat's PLO in 1988 formally acknowledged Israel's right to exist. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, leading to creation of the Palestinian Authority; Arafat's return to Gaza and the West Bank; and, for a time, hopes for a peaceful, normalized society. Five months before the PLO and Israel accepted the accords, Hamas carried out its first suicide attack.

The PLO relinquished its claims to the territory of Israel, except for Jerusalem. Hamas did not.

"The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf" - a religious trust - "consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day," the Hamas charter says. "It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country or all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that."

Fatah became synonymous with the Palestinian Authority, but by the late 1990s the authority became synonymous with corruption, incompetence and a dangerous lack of security. Through its schools, clinics and other social services, Hamas promised dignity and a way forward. Islam was the path, it said, and Islam would lead to the retaking of all the land.

In the second Palestinian uprising, from late 2000 to mid-2003, its campaign of suicide bombings helped inspire bombings by militant groups associated with Fatah. Neither group wanted to appear the less militant. The Palestinian Authority said Israel's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was a product of diplomacy; Hamas declared it was the fruit of violence.

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