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|Turning towards Mecca|
Hamas (or Islamic Resistance Movement) is a Palestinian Sunni Islamic fundamentalist, religious-political organization that sees itself as a resistance movement with the purpose of 'defending Islam and Islamic values' from Israeli aggression. It was founded by Ahmed Yassin and Mohammad Taha as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is currently the ruling party in the Gaza Strip following their democratic election in 2006 and subsequent overthrowing of the Fatah party in the strip. Most Western countries (and a few non-Western ones) currently classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Palestinian-Dutch journalist Mohammed Omer describes how Hamas is seen as having gone through three distinct phases:
According to Palestinian academic Nafed Aljeab, Hamas...was closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood movement at its inception, and built its support through mosques and the community.
Later, Hamas focused on building charitable organisations and providing what others could not, in response to a growing feeling of corruption in the established Palestinian leadership and as a response to the tightening of Israel's grip on the Occupied Territories.Emboldened by its success, Hamas was able to stand and win in the 2006 elections and, after kicking Fatah out of Gaza in a military confrontation in 2007, found itself in control of the territory and facing the challenge of effective government - its third stage.
As Omer states, the question is what direction Hamas will go in now. "Adnan Abu Amer, political analyst and dean of Al Ummah University, says Hamas has reached a level of 'maturity' as it reviews its political positions to deal with the rapid changes in the region," writes Omer. But he notes, "the group could easily pull back from its new-found flexibility."
When Israel captured the Gaza Strip after the Six Day War in 1967, they tolerated, and even actively encouraged, an increase in Islamic sentiment to serve as a buffer against the secular-nationalist PLO. Israel cooperated with a fundamentalist Muslim cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as they knew he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas, which originally emerged in 1988 during the first Palestinian uprising. 
Relations with others
a delicious spread made from mashed chickpeas according to a certain somebody an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Numerous nations, governments and politicians classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.[note 1] At times Hezbollah has collaborated with Hamas in attacking Israel, despite Hezbollah's leanings toward Shi'a Islam. Hamas has received support and weaponry from Iran. Russia, China, Norway and Switzerland, as well as most of the Arab world do not see Hamas members as terrorists, and as such have normal relations with them. Oddly, many of the countries that regard the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization (e.g. Russia) do not see Hamas in the same light, while the reverse is true for a number of countries that list Hamas as a terrorist organization (e.g. the US and Israel). International politics is weird like that. Egypt declared Hamas a terrorist organization in 2014, as part of its purge of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Goals of Hamas
At one time Hamas aimed at the establishment of an Islamic regime over Palestine and Israel. Their 1988 charter states:
The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished Palestinian movement, whose allegiance is to Allah, and whose way of life is Islam. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine, for under the wing of Islam followers of all religions can coexist in security and safety where their lives, possessions and rights are concerned.
However, the Hamas charter is considered irrelevant by its political leaders today, along with a US government study which mentions, "Hamas has, in practice, moved well beyond its charter. Indeed, Hamas has been carefully and consciously adjusting its political program for years and has sent repeated signals that it may be ready to begin a process of coexisting with Israel" 
A lot of Hamas members have been killed in conflict with Israel, many by flying robots. The group's ideology is crammed with conspiracy theories: article thirty-two of the Hamas charter uses the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to back up its arguments. But the Charter also makes clear that the motivation behind it is opposition to Zionism and the Zionist appropriation of Arab land.
The charter cites a hadith about rocks and stones singing for the killing of all Jews (whether in Israel or elsewhere) on the day of Judgment, when it will supposedly be the duty of Muslims to do so. But for all of Hamas' religious rhetoric, it is primarily a political entity.("Just as votes for Hamas must be largely understood as protest votes, Hamas’ actions must be largely understood as political actions.")
In speeches to Palestinians and in their TV shows before 2009, Hamas remained unambiguously opposed to a two-state solution or to the notion of any Israeli state and glorifies its terror attacks.
This tone changed dramatically in a 2009 major policy speech in response to speeches of US President Barack Obama in Cairo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau set forth Hamas' positions as:
- Rejected the Palestinian state envisaged by Netanyahu as a “deformed entity, a large prison for detention and suffering, and not the national home a great people deserves.”
- Rejected Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” — and warned against any Arab or Palestinian acquiescence — “because it means canceling the right to return to their homes of six million refugees, and the forced expulsion of our people in the 1948 areas [Arab inhabitants of the former Mandate] from their cities and villages.” Israel’s demand, according to Meshal, is no different than racist demands made by fascist Italy and the Nazis.
- Reaffirmed Hamas’ previous acceptance of “the program that represents the minimum demands of our people,” for “the establishment of a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem with complete sovereignty on the borders of 4 June 1967, after the withdrawal of the occupation forces, and the dismantling of all the settlements, and the realization of the Right of Return.”
- Reaffirmed that “the refugees’ Right of Return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948 is a national right and an individual right held personally” by the refugees “and no leader or negotiator can waive it or compromise on it.”
Hamas' actions tend to support that it is pursuing diplomacy at this point. "Hamas was 'careful to maintain the  ceaseﬁre,' an oﬃcial Israeli publication reported, despite Israel’s reneging on the crucial quid pro quo that it substantially lift the economic blockade of Gaza. 'The lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell ﬁre, carried out by rogue terrorist organizations,' the Israeli source continued. 'At the same time, the [Hamas] movement tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement on the other terrorist organizations and to prevent them from violating it.'"  
Moreover, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy states: "The Hamas leadership has recognized that its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future. They are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967....They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: They will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals" .
Furthermore, academic analysis of Hamas' stance over the years from the US Institute of Peace among others paints a more nuanced picture. Similar to the PLO in the 1970's and 1980's, Hamas has moderated its political stance, at least in its dealings with the West, from its earlier extremist stance as a result of entering the international field of diplomacy which unambiguously calls for a two-state solution on the June 1967 borders (except for Israel, the US, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, and Australia/Canada) as part of the "Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question". In interviews with Western media, Hamas has called for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and affirmed to be reliable by respected individuals like Jimmy Carter and Efraim Halevy. 
Human rights record
As can be expected of a religious fundamentalist group that keeps a near-absolute reign over its territory, Hamas has engaged in several forms of human rights abuse against the inhabitants of Gaza. Among them are executions of collaborators when Gaza was under military bombardment. Some argue that the situation is more complicated because Palestinians are justifiably concerned about collaboration, since "the creation of the state, [Israel's internal security organization] dedicated much of its time and resources to creating a network of collaborators inside Arab society, often using blackmail and threats to keep Arab citizens — the vast majority of whom lived under military law until 1966 — in line.". However, this problem still wouldn't negate the need for due process.
Hamas has been found to commit torture and abductions, and imposes socially conservative policies (e.g., banning hookahs). It has also committed war crimes by firing rockets and mortar shells into Israeli civilian areas, and in the past has executed suicide bombings. . Unsurprisingly, Hamas denies all accusations, and prefers to refer to Israeli abuses and claiming to be not as bad as Fatah.
In early January of 2016, Hamas released what it says is a video of its former Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2006 and released to Israel in 2011 in a prisoner exchange. The clip clearly intends to depict Hamas as treating prisoners well, as it shows "the smiling Shalit barbecuing with his guards...[and] drinking tea with Hamas fighters and watching television." In the short video, "Shalit sits in a relatively spacious cell with an exercise bicycle and adjoining toilet as an attendant brings him a beverage."[note 2]
An additional reason for releasing the clip may be to send the message to Israel "that Hamas’ military wing can hold on to prisoners for as long as it takes and Israel will not be able to find them." Hamas has additional Israeli soldiers it holds whom it says it will not release until Israel frees the prisoners it recaptured after releasing them during the Shalit exchange.
Recent reports of excessive use of force by police during a demonstration in Khuza, may indicate that Hamas is losing favor with the population it rules over and tries to brutally suppress dissent. The same Palestinian human rights group also denounces a rising tide of vigilantism, that Hamas is either unwilling or unable to put an end to. However the fears of a Hamas decline in popularity were found to be unfounded by a poll conducted later that year which showed 4 out of every 10 Gazans support Hamas, up from the previous year. This was likely due to Hamas' performance in the 2014 war.
All in all, it's fair to say that Hamas plays some role in the suffering that life in Gaza entails for most except a select few Hamas leaders.  Although, during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, when Gaza was under intense bombardment and shelling by Israeli forces, dozens of members of Gazan civil society -- including physicians, academics and other public figures -- stated that their lives under Israeli occupation were "a living death" in an open letter supporting Hamas' ceasefire demands. 
As saber-rattling and wars abroad is a tried and tested way to unify the people behind unpopular leaders, the discontent with Hamas among its subjects may bode ill for any hope for a peaceful settlement in the foreseeable future. Hamas, according to Turkey, has recently been conducting negotiations with Israel to end the blockade and agree to a long-term truce. On the other hand, Palestinians, including Hamas, do observe that the PLO made some of the same concessions now demanded of Hamas and the perception is that this achieved nothing but perpetuating the oppressive status quo.
How did they ever get into power?
A lot of people either forget or leave out the very reason Hamas ever won an election: they run numerous social welfare programs like mosques, charities, sports groups etc. (not unlike Hezbollah). They also have earned respect as a "legitimate" national liberation movement unlike Fatah who are seen as collaborators that do the dirty work of Israel's occupation. In the end, Hamas won in a free and fair election.
Human shields "myth"
Hamas merits a lot of criticism for its human rights record and wingnut positions, and is often accused of using human shield tactics despite reputable human rights organizations (who themselves have condemned Hamas repeatedly for war crimes and human rights violations) finding no evidence of this. The charge of human shields appears to be borne more out of pro-Israel propaganda designed to legitimize attacks against civilians and avoid its own responsibility for war crimes it commits.
One of the more corroborated allegations is that Hamas used the Al-Shifa hospital as their HQ to carry out their orders during 2014, although at least one doctor that worked at the hospital questions this. Among the corroborating evidence is the Palestinian health minister objecting to Hamas commandeering hospital wards for use as prisons and interrogation compounds, and a report released by the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. Shin bet also reported that Hamas's decision to choose a hospital was rooted in the fact it would be spared from airstrikes as it provided aid for wounded Palestinians, thus serving as a human shield.
Amnesty International, for its part, did not find evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian groups violated the laws of war to the extent repeatedly alleged by Israel during Operation Cast Lead (2009). In particular, it found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks. By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation Cast Lead forced Palestinian civilians to serve as 'human shields" . According to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Israel Defense Force used civilians as human shields at least 1200 times; most in the form of Israel's "neighbor procedure" where acquaintances would try to convince wanted men to surrender. In one notorious case an Israeli military court suspended two Israeli soldiers for using a Palestinian child as a human shield. 
The Goldstone Report (which investigated possible war crimes by both sides during OCL) stated that it "did not find any evidence of civilians being forced to remain in their houses by Palestinian armed groups".  Human Rights Watch also noted that during OCL: "In the cases documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the vicinity at the time of the attacks".
Amnesty International also found during Operation Protective Edge (2014) that there was no "evidence at this point that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to 'shield' specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks". 
It is alleged that calls upon people of Gaza to resist a military attack are said to constitute human shields. In addition, it is alleged that Hamas launches rockets from near civilian buildings. However, these acts do not meet the definition of human shields under the laws of war. To use human shields requires a coercive element by directly forcing people as a shield from military attack. Individuals willingly resisting an attack against them or a civilian home is an act of non-violent civil resistance done of their own accord rather than deliberately being forced to act as a shield. In addition, for armed individuals to operate as a guerrilla army is quite different from engaging in human shielding, as most armies will attest. Amnesty has itself noted that "fighting in urban areas per se is not a violation of international humanitarian law" and "a Party to the conflict cannot be expected to arrange its armed forces and installations in such a way as to make them conspicuous to the benefit of the adversary" . Also, seeing as the Gaza Strip is basically one massive city, it makes sense to hide your weapons in inconspicuous areas. To say operating as a guerrilla army is the equivalent of human shielding radically alters the definitions of the laws of war and would grant carte blanche to bad governments (i.e. Assad, Saddam) to target civilians on grounds of fighting against rebel armies in urban areas (i.e. FSA, Kurdish separatists, etc). If this standard were used to denote human shielding, Israel would come out looking far worse in comparison and could, ironically, be used to justify rocket attacks on Israeli towns/areas much like its apologists will do with regard to Gaza.
In Ashkelon, Sderot, Be’er Sheva and other cities in the south of Israel, as well as elsewhere in the country, military bases and other installations are located in or around residential areas, including kibbutzim and villages [. . .] During Operation Protective Edge, there were more Israeli military positions and activities than usual close to civilian areas in the south of Israel, and Israeli forces launched daily artillery and other attacks into Gaza from these areas along Gaza’s perimeter.
- Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies - Page 146, Zaki Chehab - 2007
- Second Paragraph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas
- Reuters 2014 March 03
- Hamas Covenant 1988, Article Six. Reproduced by The Avalon Project, Yale Law School.
- This Time We Went Too Far, by Norman Finkelstein, pp 47-8
- Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center, The Six Months of the Lull Arrangement (December 2008). Of note, after the raid of November 4, 2008 when Hamas launched rockets soonafter, the ITIC acknowledged that they were launched "in retaliation." The source is as follows and the quotes cited can be found under paragraph 4 http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/18366
- Mideast Mirror, December 2008
- Norsk Gaza-læge: Palæstinenserne har ret til at gøre modstand, DR, August 3rd 2014 (article in Danish, title translates to "Norwegian Gaza-doctor: Palestinians have the right to resist)
- PA: Hamas converts hospitals into jails, Ynetnews, July 2009
- 'Hamas leaders hiding in bunkers under Gaza's Shifa Hospital', Israel Hayom, August 26th, 2014
- Amnesty International, 22 Days of Death and Destruction
- BBC with pictures