Who are you, Hamas?

And what will you do with the peace process and your legions of supporters?

Weíve all heard the cautionary tones sounded by the political prognosticators. Itís that rare broken arrow thatís cut through the rabble of the daily media mix, perking our antennae and wrinkling the brow of collective ìthinking” facial expression.

Who or what is Hamas? How did they come to a position of official governmental power? And why should either of us give a flying fig?

Hamas is a political resistance movement established by Muslim Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank during the first intifada in late 1987. Their official charter calls for not only the destruction of the state of Israel but also of any secular Palestinian government, followed by the creation of a new republic in Jerusalem based on Islamic principles.

Hamas is best known throughout the Western world for its radical military wing, which has conducted what it has termed ìmartyrdom operations,” or the strapping of citizen volunteers with explosives in order to kill as many Israeli settlers as possible in public areas. In short, Hamas pioneered the suicide bomber.

Strangely, Hamas has also established a well-run network of efficient social welfare and education programs and charities, significantly increasing literacy and providing crucial health care to residents in areas where it is ìactive.”

According to Israeli scholar Reuven Paz published in the United States by the Council on Foreign Relations, about 90 percent of Hamasí activities are in the social, educational and medical services, including school and hospitals. Such relief efforts are seen by supporters as genuine acts of goodwill and by detractors a front for propaganda and potential recruitment.

Last month Hamas swept Palestineís first democratic election since the 1960s, defeating former leader Yasser Arafatís Fatah party.

As a result, Hamas ó which is listed by the United States, the European Union and Israel as a terrorist group ó may jeopardize $1.5 billion in foreign aid from the United Nations and its member countries if it doesnít renounce its stated constitutional goal to ìremove Israel from the map.”

Conservative talking heads are making comparisons with the Third Reichís democratically legitimate rise to power in pre-World War II Germany, which elected Adolf Hitler as its leader. So, why did Joe Palestine vote for Hamas ?

The answer is in Fatahís half-century of failed reforms and broken promises. Disenchanted Palestinians ó even the peaceniks among them ó saw Hamasí ambitious social agenda and hard line against political corruption as a fresh, sincere antidote.

When Arafat died in 2004, the Palestinians lost the only advocate theyíd ever had who was charismatic enough to get invited to sit at the table of international big-boy politics. More than a figurehead, he was also the symbol of Palestineís national aspirations. Since his death there has been a vacuum of Palestinian leadership.

Hamas uses the political capital of both aid and terror as viable tools to carve out a niche in the confused clamor of a region aching for change. Does Hamas have the intellectual artillery to fire the opening salvo in the war of ideas? Or will they treat governing as another ill-fated suicide mission with forty virgins waiting at the finish line? Your move, Hamas.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]