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Frequently Asked Questions About Hamas

ByABC News
June 6, 2003, 11:48 AM

— -- For tens of thousands of dispossessed and displaced Palestinians, Hamas is a resistance movement incorruptible and invulnerable in the fight against Israeli occupation.

For Israel and most Western nations though, Hamas is a terrorist organization that has orchestrated a cold-blooded campaign of suicide bombings in the region.

Where most Westerners see enraged fighters willing to die for the cause rather than compromise, many Palestinians view Hamas as a disciplined group that provides education, housing, medical facilities and, most importantly, a sense of pride and defiance in the face of decades of humiliation and defeat.

Observers say the grass-roots organization could make or break any hopes for peace in the Middle East. Here are some frequently asked questions about the group.

What is Hamas?
Hamas is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, which began operating in early 1988 after the start of the 1987 uprising -- also known as the first Palestinian intifada.

How and when was Hamas founded?
In 1987, soon after the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, Sheik Ahmed Yassin emerged from the ranks of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood to found Hamas.

Born in 1938 in what was then British-ruled Palestine and educated at Egypt's al-Azhar University -- the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood -- Yassin formed the belief that Palestine was an Islamic land and no Arab leader had the right to give up any part of Arab lands. It was to become the central tenet of Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant Islamist organization.

Who leads Hamas?
Yassin served as the group's spiritual leader until his assassination on March 22, 2004, by an Israeli missile strike. Following his death, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a firebrand leader and well-known Hamas spokesman, took over the organization's leadership. But three weeks after Yassin's assassination, Rantisi was also killed by an Israeli missile.

As tens of thousands of supporters took to the streets in Gaza vowing revenge, Hamas appointed a new leader, whose identity was kept secret due to security reasons. One of Hamas' major military leaders, Khalid Meshaal, currently lives in Syria following a bungled Israeli assassination attempt in 1997. Meshaal is believed to head the Hamas exile wing.