Naif Rajoub, a prominent Hamas West Bank imam, notes that Islam "does not agree with the killing of civilians ... except in cases where they are reactions [to attacks on Muslim civilians]in order to deter others from targeting civilian Muslims."
The last suicide bombing inside Israel for which Hamas was believed responsible was carried out in August, 2004. It was in Beersheva and 16 Israeli bus passengers were killed.
The group carried out two more attacks in January, 2005, inside the Gaza Strip, targeting military and settler checkpoints. Other groups, chiefly Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, continued to carry out sporadic suicide bombings for four more years.
Hamas's decision to cease suicide attacks was made by Khaled Meshaal, the group's Damascus-based political chief, soon after becoming Hamas's ranking leader in 2004 (following the assassinations of his two predecessors, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed in a four-week period that year).
Mahmoud Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and its political leader in Gaza, said the decision to abandon the "martyrdom operations" was made because the group had succeeded in forcing Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
As he talked, Dr. Zahar, a Gaza surgeon,motioned to the spot in his garden where his oldest son was killed in a 2003 Israeli aerial attack intended for him.Another son, a militant, was killed in early 2008 by an Israeli air strike.
Others said the decision was made because the cost to Hamas's image had become too great. Some suggested it was to improve the party's electoral chances.
But if its new policy helped the party in the 2006 vote, it didn't do anything for its post-election status, as Israel and the Quartet refused to have anything to do with a new government that included Hamas.
"We were shocked," said Ghazi Hamad, recently appointed the Hamas government's deputy foreign minister. Mr. Hamad met with representatives of various European countries immediately after the election. He pleaded for time to show what kind of government Hamas would lead.
" 'Hamas is not Taliban,' " Mr. Hamad said he told everyone. "Hamas is a moderate organization. We never used violence against people outside of Palestine [including Israel]"
Although Israel and the Quartet remain unconvinced of Hamas's commitment to non-violence, the move has won it plaudits from people such as Munib Rashid Masri, the wealthy Nablus businessman who helped to broker the Hamas-PA reconciliation. "When they make a decision, they stick to it," Mr. Masri said of Hamas. "I respect that."
Written in blood
If Hamas is to be a partner in negotiations, the group must do more than renounce violence. It seems it must recognize Israel as a legitimate state. And that is where Hamas's 1988 covenant looms so large.
In all the interviews conducted with Hamas members, no one deviated from the lengthy covenant that had been drafted just after the first intifada broke out. That was when, in the winter of 1987-88, Hamas was created as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Its leaders, led by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a charismatic, almost blind quadriplegic preacher, pledged to follow the Brotherhood's largely non-violent methods and wrote out the covenant to make the group's goals clear.
The primary points of this 36-article document are:
- All of Palestine (including modern-day Israel) is deemed to be an Islamic waqf (land protected for religious purposes).
- It is the duty of Muslims to wage jihad to regain possession of all of Palestine.
- Not only must Israel not be recognized, it must be "obliterated."
With all that, "I don't believe in Hamas becoming moderate," Mr. Sneh said.
Aziz Dweik, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and leader of the Hamas-affiliated Reform and Change in the West Bank, insisted in a recent interview that, despite its importance, Hamas's covenant "is not the Holy Koran."
"It can be adapted," he said.
"If they do change it," a doubtful Mr. Sneh said, "and if they accept the rest of the Quartet's principles, we will give them credit.
"That would be sufficient," he said. "I would deal with them."
Israel held to similar ground before it would deal officially with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. That group had declared in 1988 that it accepted the principle of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel within its June 4, 1967, boundaries.