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Hamas transforms from resistance movement to governing party

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The political earthquake that swept Hamas to power in Wednesday's parliamentary elections has been rumbling below the surface of Palestinian life for nearly two decades.

Founded in the crowded Gaza Strip in 1987 as an outgrowth of the Egyptian fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the group, whose name means "zeal," is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Its birth coincided with the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel and its covenant, published a year later, called for a zealous campaign to destroy Israel.

"Holy war," the document declared, is a duty binding on all Muslims whenever "enemies usurp Islamic lands."

Now, as Hamas faces the demands and responsibilities of governing, is it the same organization it was at birth or will the desire to participate in politics mean that its leaders will steer a more moderate course?

"Hamas faces the difficult task of adjusting from a resistance movement to a political party in the system," said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent Palestinian lawmaker who ran for office with Hamas' backing.

"What is it going to do with militants who made resistance a career? How is it going to deal with issues that matter to its voters: corruption, internal order, the peace process? It is much easier to be in the opposition and criticize mistakes," Amr said.

Hamas "has translated those mistakes into power," he said. "Now it has to translate power into change."

Palestinian political analyst Khaled Duzdar thinks that Hamas will dance delicately.

"Hamas is not going to make concessions on their bedrock beliefs. But at the same time they want to prove to the world that they are not the devils they are perceived to be," he said.

From its earliest days, the group's fundamentalist ideology—put forward by its founder, the paraplegic Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whom an Israeli missile killed two years ago—spoke to a growing segment of disenfranchised Palestinians.

Spreading its ideology through mosques and social-service programs, Hamas provided medical care and free food programs, pressured women to dress modestly, attacked stores that sold liquor and killed those who were suspected of collaborating with "the Zionist entity."

Hamas took responsibility for six attacks on Israelis in 1989, including kidnappings, stabbings, and shootings, while its efforts to delegitimize Yasser Arafat's dominant Palestine Liberation Organization grew bolder. It went on to kill hundreds of Israelis in scores of suicide attacks.

At the outset, Israel didn't deal death blows to Hamas because the group seemed to be undermining Arafat. But Israel eventually outlawed Hamas because of its relentless anti-Israel campaign. In a string of airstrikes in recent years, the Israeli air force killed many in Hamas' top echelon, including Yassin, all while keeping Arafat pinned down in his headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank.

Some analysts think that the targeted killings fueled Hamas' popularity.

So did Hamas' calls to reform the decades-old ruling Fatah party, which many Palestinians had come to see as corrupt and ineffective. Many analysts think that voters' hopes of better services played a major role in Hamas' national election victory.

During the campaign, Hamas leaders had hinted that they'd be content to be a strong force in the opposition rather than enter the government, a stance that allowed them to dodge questions about whether they'd recognize Israel if bilateral negotiations ever were revived.

But the group's landslide victory may force it to take clearer positions on key issues, including whether to renounce violence or revise its charter. For the moment, that seems unlikely.

Peace with Israel "is not on our agenda," Mushir al-Mari, a Hamas lawmaker-elect from the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, said in an interview Thursday.

Mazen Sinokrot, the Palestinian economy minister who resigned with the rest of the Cabinet after Hamas' victory, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Hamas "now has to look deeply into itself to figure out how to become an accepted player in the international arena."

For Israel, the United States and the European Union, that begins with the demand that the group disarm.

"What Hamas was achieving in the past in terms of neighborhood improvements was small-scale," said Duzdar, the political analyst. "Now, in the government, they need to think bigger.

"Maybe they will work more to improve their image internationally to achieve something on the ground for the people. Otherwise, what had happened to Fatah can happen to them."

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(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060126 Hamas timeline, 20060126 Hamas bio

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