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For Gaza Refugees, Hamas Is Hope

The group known for suicide bombings is seen by many Palestinians as an uncorrupted caretaker and their best bet for statehood.

March 24, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — Seated on the floor of his three-room apartment in the Shati refugee camp with his five children, Saaed Masri, 33, holds a bag of beans and a plastic container of shortening given to him by an Islamic charity linked to Hamas.

The former textile worker is unemployed, like most members of his extended family. He has a critically ill 80-year-old father in the next room huddled in front of a heater. So the monthly food gift is not only welcome -- often, it is all that stands between his family and hunger.

Another Hamas-linked association provides his children with notebooks and pencils. When family members get sick, they turn to inexpensive doctors provided by Islamic charities tied to Hamas.

From its beginnings in 1987, Hamas has been at the forefront of the campaign of suicide bombings in Israel that has killed hundreds. But among the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, the group is seen as one that nurtures lives with its food and educational and healthcare projects.

Hamas' leaders have advocated a holy war against Israel and promised martyrdom for those who die in the struggle. Many Palestinians, though, see the group's Islamic foundations as principled and devout.

Dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, Hamas has refused to cooperate with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and denounced its off-and-on negotiations with Israelis. Yet among many Gazans, Hamas is regarded as a disciplined alternative to Arafat's corruption-tainted group and the best hope for achieving Palestinian statehood.

"From the start, Hamas has devoted itself to the heart of our suffering," Masri said in the family living area furnished with little more than a plastic mat, a wardrobe and seven foam mattresses. "They are not corrupt. They are true to our people."

Israel said its assassination Monday of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a 67-year-old quadriplegic and former resident of the Shati camp, was intended to debilitate the group. But many observers expect it to give the already powerful organization a further boost.

As anger and grief at Yassin's slaying erupted across the Arab world this week, even moderate Palestinians voiced concern that Israel's attack played into the hands of hard-liners, with Hamas best positioned to reap any harvest of recruits, money and political support.

"The missile that killed Sheik Yassin killed the peace process," said Asad abu Sharkh, a political analyst with Gaza's Al Azhar University. "We're heading for a new wave of violence."

Hamas is gaining strength in part, analysts say, because it has done a better job of tapping the fears and hopes of ordinary Palestinians compared with other armed groups such as Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Economically, its food distribution and welfare operations give it a strong base at the grass-roots level, particularly in depressed areas such as Shati. The group is well organized; in this camp, for instance, two local representatives on each block keep an eye on the community and aid distribution.

Politically, the group's decision not to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority has given it the advantage of an opposition player. While the authority has engaged in talks with Israel, Hamas has sought to portray itself as unsullied by compromise and truer to a vision of Palestinian independence.

Ideologically, Hamas' strong link with Islam gives it greater credibility in the religiously conservative Gaza Strip than groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which derives its inspiration from Marxism.

Militarily, Hamas has carried out more high-profile attacks than other groups at a time when Israel's security crackdown in Palestinian areas and the stalling of peace talks have convinced many that negotiations and political compromise are nonstarters.

As Masri looks at his 5-year-old son, Mustafa, dressed in a military-style outfit with three stars on the lapel and a paratrooper's emblem on the breast, he says he would rather not have him get involved in the armed struggle against Israel when he grows up.

"I would like my sons to be educated, to become doctors, so I could be proud," he said. "I don't want them to be martyrs."

But hope is in short supply in Gaza, he added. Israel has severely restricted travel out of the fenced-in costal strip in a bid to contain would-be attackers and has stepped up its military activity in Gaza, trying to kill Hamas members and others it accuses of terrorist activity. Gaza's economy has been devastated, its land pummeled.

Masri worries that ultimately, his children won't ask his advice. "I may not be able to stop them," he said.

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