Gaza City is not a pleasant place. Mounds of garbage line the roadsides as you pass through the checkpoint from Israel, ramshackle buildings with aluminum roofs, held-down only by cinderblocks, jut-out from everywhere. The city seems to scream of poverty and despair.
Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Its one-time sprawl of "tent cities" built as makeshift refugee camps have evolved into urban sprawl and feature crumbling edifices built on top of one another.
One of the few signs of hope in Gaza is the children — hundreds of them, wherever you go. We stood outside a mosque with a group of kids on a Friday afternoon, under the intense Gaza sun, as the call to prayer wailed from megaphones perched on the minarets above.
The smiles on the children's faces and their eagerness to participate in an impromptu English and Arabic exchange program, belied their gaunt frames and dirt-smeared faces.
Hamas Founder Adored by Followers
When the afternoon prayers concluded, the children, and our news team, all converged on a serene-looking elderly man in a wheelchair, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, an Islamic organization that has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombing attacks in Israel in recent years. The U.S. State Department has Hamas high on its list of terrorist organizations. For a timeline of suicide attacks, click here.
The children we had been talking to, and most of the adults in the area, formed a ring of adulation around Yassin, bending to kiss him and to hear what he would say to a group of Western journalists who looked horribly out of place.
This is why we were in Gaza. We arrived several days earlier to work on a story about Hamas. We were intrigued by the notion that Hamas, though often painted with the broad brush of terrorism, represents much more to the Palestinian people.
With its roots in the old Muslim Brotherhood Organization, Yassin founded Hamas as an Islamic alternative to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization, and upon its conception, he established separate military and political branches, each of which was to function entirely independently.
To this day, Hamas remains, at least in part, a charitable organization. It runs schools, mosques and medical clinics and provides desperately needed food aid to the Palestinian people.
As Yasser Arafat and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority see their popularity continue to decline amidst charges of corruption, more people are turning to Hamas.
And as Hamas' popularity continues to grow, in large part because of its charitable works, so too does popular support for its martyrdom campaigns against Israel.
The crux of Yassin's philosophy with regard to Hamas' campaign against Israel is a mantra that rings true among virtually every Palestinian you encounter in Gaza, as well as the West Bank: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has been in place since 1967, must end, and until it does, all bets are off.
In a high-pitched, soft spoken voice that seems out of place for a man considered to be a terrorist leader, Yassin asked us rhetorically, "invading Jenin and killing all these innocent people is OK, yet I can't defend myself? They go and they invade the cities and the villages and kill all these people, that's fine. But us defending ourselves is not OK?" Many Palestinians support this argument and they rally behind it in support of the suicide attacks in Israel.
Yassin is unapologetic about the martyrdom campaign, he calls it a means to an end — in fact the only means left to the Palestinian people to pursue their goal of forcing Israel to end the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Suicide Bombings Widely Supported as Means to an End
Virtually everyone we met in Gaza told us they supported the attacks.
We spoke to a group of 12-year-old girls in the bazaar of the "Beach" refugee camp and asked them what they thought of suicide bombers. They rattled off the names of martyrs like American children do pop stars or sports heroes, and one girl, through a wonderful smile, filled with youthful energy, looked at us and said simply, "it is our only means of resistance."
Sady Nassar agrees. We followed him home one afternoon from an aid distribution center owned by Hamas. He's hobbled by illness and struggled under the weight of the sack of food he bore over his shoulder.
He led us down a narrow, dusty alleyway in the Beach camp, to his small house, where he lives with his wife and six children.
As he put the food away in the kitchen, he told us that he supports Hamas because they are the only ones who have helped him.
"Hamas gives help not just to me, but a lot of people in refugee camps, so they have have good relationships with the people. This is really nice of them to help the people. They help all the poor people," he explains. Nasser says Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have done nothing for him, and he has grown weary of the occupation. If it takes suicide bombers to make the Israelis withdraw, so be it. Nasser even says he would be proud if one of his children grew up to be a suicide bomber.
There's no doubt in Nassar's voice. No hesitation. No pause. This is simply what must be done to overcome injustice.