Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has indicated he might include the militant Islamic group Hamas in a government for the Gaza Strip, if and when, Israel withdraws from the territory. The State Department has voiced opposition to such a role for Hamas, but the group's popularity makes it difficult for Mr. Arafat to ignore.
Walk down a major street in Gaza City and you will likely see green flags fluttering in the breeze. These are the banners of Hamas.
Some of that stems from the outpouring of support and emotion that brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into the streets, just a few weeks ago, for the funeral of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by an Israeli missile strike. But, there is little doubt about growing support for the group, and many Palestinians say the group's popularity is directly linked to attacks against Israel.
"The groups that are most popular here on the ground are the ones who are resisting Israeli occupation," said student Ibrahim Barakat, 22.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three and a half years of violence, and many more before that. Israel and the United States designate Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Ghazi Hamad is editor in chief of the Hamas-linked Al-Ressala weekly. Speaking with VOA in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, he denied that accusation.
"We are not fighting against Britain, against the Americans or against Italians or against anyone. We just focus on the occupation," Mr. Hamad said. "In general, we are the victims of the occupation and we have the right to defend against the occupation.
Pace: Something that is very hard to understand are the suicide bombings. It is so random. You are hitting civilians, men, women and children. No matter what the cause, how can you justify that?
"In general, no one agrees for this kind of war to attack civilians," he responded. "I ask you a question, how many Palestinian civilians were killed during this Intifada? Daily Palestinians are killed, daily. So, sometimes we feel the war in the heart of our cities, our villages our refugee camps and we are suffering ? and the Israelis in Israeli cities, in Tel Aviv, in Jaffa, they are living in prosperity, they are traveling abroad, they are eating, drinking. They never feel that there are some people who are suffering ? Sometimes the Palestinians feel that we have to move this war in the Israeli street in order that they have to feel the pain. They have to exert pressure on their government [that] 'you have to stop.' "
Israel does feel pressure to act and says it has every right to track down and kill those responsible for or planning to carry out attacks against Israelis.
More than 3,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israelis have been killed in the current Intifada, or uprising. Most have been civilians.
Hamas is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was formed in the late 1980's during the first Palestinian Intifada. The organization rejects compromise with Israel, including a two-state solution. It does not recognize Israel's right to exist and remains opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords, signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993.
For years, Hamas was a fringe organization, popular mainly for its social and educational work, especially in poor neighborhoods. But, that has changed. The most recent Palestinian public opinion poll indicates Hamas has the support of 30 percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. It is increasingly seen as a rival to Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement.
Imad Falouji was once a leading member of Hamas, but in recent years he has been a member of the Palestinian legislature and an advisor to Yasser Arafat. He says Hamas' growing stature is due in large part to the failure of the Oslo peace accords and the failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver on the benefits of peace.
"If the [Palestinian] Authority succeeded in these 10 years and the Palestinians feel [felt] the results of peace, you would see Hamas now a small party - if Yasser Arafat succeeded and he gave the Palestinians hope for the future. But, when Yasser Arafat failed, when the Palestinian Authority failed, of course you see Hamas the biggest party for the people now. Not because Hamas [is] strong, but because the PA [Palestinian Authority] failed."
The United States and Israel have repeatedly demanded that the Palestinian Authority crack down and dismantle what they call terror organizations, such as Hamas. It is one of the stipulations of the internationally-backed "Road Map" peace plan, which remains stalled. But, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has insisted on the need to talk with these groups - to bring them into the fold rather than risk igniting a civil war.
Talks have been under way among the various factions on that issue, and some Hamas officials are saying they could join the Palestinian Authority if there is real power sharing, but not just for a symbolic role.