The other side of Hamas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines

The Middle East peace process was thrown into even more turmoil after Hamas won last month's Palestinian election.

Why such a big fuss over a democratically elected party?

Hamas differs from your ordinary political party because it has been behind numerous suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel. Its founding charter commits the Islamist group to the destruction of Israel, and therefore an end to what they see as the 'Zionist occupation of Palestine'.

Hamas is deemed a terrorist organisation by the US. So how come the Palestinians voted a terrorist group into government?

In short, they didn't. The military wing is just part of a group that devotes much of an estimated US$70 million annual budget to extensive social projects. Hamas is popular because it funds the building and maintenance of schools, orphanages, soup kitchens, sports competitions and mosques. It puts funds into health care. About 90 per cent of its efforts are said to be spent on social, welfare, cultural and educational activities.

But do Palestinians support the destruction of Israel?

If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, no. A clear majority of people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank who voted for Hamas at the election say they recognise Israel's right to exist and want a negotiated peace agreement.

How have other governments viewed the election of Hamas?

George W. Bush might be determined to bring democracy to the Middle East, but this result was the last thing America wanted. The 'Quartet' leading the moves towards a peace process - the US, Russia, EU and the United Nations - threatened to cut funds from the Palestinian Authority unless it renounces violence and withdraws its pledge to destroy Israel. After the election, Israel delayed payment of tens of millions of dollars in tax rebates, money vital to the decrepit Palestinian economy.

And Israel seems set to try to destabilise the Hamas-led government. 'The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not make them die of hunger,' an Israeli prime ministerial adviser, Dov Weisglass, was quoted as saying.

How have Hamas' leaders responded?

Being a Hamas leader is a high-risk job. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was the political leader until 2004, when he was assassinated by Israeli security forces. His replacement, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, lasted a month before he met the same fate. Hamas has since hidden the identities of its senior political leadership. The present leader is believed to be Khaled Meshaal, who reportedly directs the organisation from Syria. Last week, he told a Russian newspaper that Hamas would recognise Israel if it withdrew from all Palestinian occupied territories - including the West Bank and East Jerusalem.