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A Palestinian boy carries a toy gun spray painted green, the color of Hamas. (Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail/Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)
A Palestinian boy carries a toy gun spray painted green, the color of Hamas. (Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail/Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)

ANALYSIS

Hamas: Agents of terror, partners in peace, or both? Add to ...

Shmuel Gillis was on his way home that evening from Hadassah Hospital, where he practised as a hematologist. Coming up to the Etzion Junction, halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron on the West Bank, the British-born physician called his wife, Ruthi, to say he was only a few minutes from their home in the small settlement of Karmei Tzur.

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As he hung up and started down the hill south of the intersection, his car was overtaken by a Palestinian vehicle, police say. Someone in the vehicle opened fire on the 42-year-old father of five as they passed, fatally wounding him and leading his car to plunge off the side of the road.

"Shmuel never arrived," Ruthi Gillis recalled this week. "We heard on the radio there had been an attack." The couple's five children were aged 3 to 13.

Hamas was thought to be responsible, though no one was ever caught and charged with the killing. It was February, 2001, the early months of the second, more deadly intifada, and this area was a Hamas stronghold - the group had carried out several drive-by attacks just like the one that killed Dr. Gillis.

Almost 10 years later, Israelis remain riveted by Hamas, but for entirely different reasons. The militant Islamists best known in the West for suicide attacks against civilians made news earlier this month for their reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. The pact between the two groups - one committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the other moderate and secular - has reignited a global argument about the way to a final Middle East peace.

There is fierce debate on all sides, perhaps none more so than on the question of whether to include in negotiations an organization decried for its terrorist tactics. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred publicly over the preconditions for restarting talks.

The Palestinian Authority has a controversial plan to declare statehood at the United Nations in September. Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has denounced the reconciliation between the rival factions. He says Mr. Abbas must choose between negotiating a peace agreement with Israel and forming a partnership with "the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda." The U.S. and the rest of the world agree that unless Hamas is capable of fundamental change, it remains beyond the pale.

Yet it would be unrealistic to think that Hamas will fade away. The group has withstood years of isolation, arrest and deadly military attacks. Many people in Gaza are frustrated by its inability to deliver a better life, and others in the West Bank may not want to jeopardize the good life that some are now enjoying. But there is no denying the group's appeal to large numbers of Palestinians.

Over the past several months, The Globe and Mail conducted extensive interviews with more than 30 Hamas figures in both the Gaza Strip, where the group has ruled since 2006, and the West Bank, where Hamas MPs have to be careful to refer to themselves as belonging to the "Reform and Change Party" in order to avoid arrest by Israeli forces.

Throughout the conversations, it became clear that Hamas's covenant, its refusal to recognize Israel and its use of violence may be insurmountable hurdles to engagement and, ultimately, to a lasting peace. And while the group's leadership has shown its willingness to renounce violence for specific periods of time and honour its commitments, its rhetoric concerning Israeli civilian casualties remains deeply disturbing.

Should Israel and the West continue to shun Hamas, or is this the time instead to consider recognizing the organization and dealing with the interim Palestinian government it supports?

Rules of engagement

It was acting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert who set current policy in 2006 when Hamas was elected to office. Israel "will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members include an armed terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel," he declared.

Subsequently, the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia (collectively known as the Quartet) said that, before they would deal with it, all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, acceptance of previous Palestinian agreements and obligations, and recognition of Israel.

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