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In Gaza, Calls For Change Put Hamas At A Crossroads

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The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, is a house divided. Its leaders say there are divisions among the ranks as they try to grapple with where to push the movement: toward moderation or a continued commitment to armed resistance against Israel.

Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst, wonders where Hamas is headed in the next two to three years. He says the changes in the region after the Arab Spring not only shook the world, but they also forced groups like Hamas to reassess where they stand, in terms of old alliances and future direction.

"Hamas is living in the Middle East; they don't live in a vacuum," Shaban says. "Hamas has to cope with or respond to these new challenges. This has created a lot of debate within [the] Hamas movement itself."

Debate And Disagreements

Hamas is filled with contradictions.

On the one hand, it is a Sunni Muslim group that was supported by Shiite Iran; until recently it had its base in Alawite-controlled Syria. It is viewed as a terrorist organization by the West and Israel, responsible for suicide bombings and rocket attacks. But it is also a government, administrating the lives of 1.6 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

If you were to visit Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef in Gaza, you'll hear of a Hamas that is now willing to turn away from armed resistance.

"Because of the situation now because of the Arab revolution ... we shouldn't give the Israelis any excuse to continue their incursion or aggression against us," Yousef says. "That's why we resort to this nonviolent approach or the popular peaceful resistance; we hope the world community will respond positively to what we are doing."

But go to see Mahmoud Zahar, one of Hamas' founders, and the message is very different.

"Hamas is still committed to its principles as a liberating movement [and] freedom fighters," Zahar says.

These fault lines also extend to where Hamas will get its support.

Last month in Cairo, the group publicly broke with its erstwhile benefactor Syria, saying it supported the right of the people there to get rid of the Assad regime. That angered Iran, one of Syria's biggest backers, and up until recently the country that provided the most money to Hamas.

But after the revolutions in the Middle East, Hamas is not looking to Tehran anymore but to Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was founded as an offshoot of the brotherhood, and its leaders are looking to strengthen that relationship. Hamas now says it won't intervene in any conflict between Iran and Israel over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

Promoting Change

The man leading the charge toward change is Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' long-exiled political leader. He's been pushing reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement, which holds sway in the West Bank.

Yousef, the Hamas leader, sees Meshaal as a positive force in Hamas.

"I think what Khaled Meshaal has done is something great and he should be respected for that," he says.

But Zahar, the group's founder, is unhappy at many of Meshaal's recent decisions and says he is happy the political leader is stepping down.

"He spent more than 17 years as chairman of Hamas movement," Zahar says. "I think it is good for him to leave now."

Whatever the divisions, though, most Hamas members agree the Arab Spring has been good for the movement. Political Islam is on the rise throughout the region and Hamas leaders have traveled extensively.

Analyst Talal Okal in Gaza predicts the closer Hamas gets to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the more moderate it will become.

"The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has moderate politics ... so [what] they want from Hamas [is] to moderate its political program to have reconciliation," Okal says. "They are not encouraging violence against Israel."

But Okal warns the upheaval in the region is far from over, and Hamas is still deciding its future direction.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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