THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Muhammad Hassan Shama, little-known Hamas founder

By Ibrahim Barzak
Associated Press / June 11, 2011

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Muhammad Hassan Shama, a founder of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, died yesterday of a stroke after decades as an influential yet little-known figure at the helm of the Palestinian militant organization. He was 76.

Mr. Shama, revered by Hamas loyalists but nearly anonymous outside Gaza, was one of the eight founders of the Islamist group in the 1980s. After his death, Hamas publicly announced yesterday for the first time that Mr. Shama had been the leader of the secretive Shura Council, its top governing body.

The identity of the council’s members is a closely guarded secret because they could be targeted by Israel. The founder and first leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2004.

Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings and rocket attacks. In 2007, Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from its Palestinian rivals in the Western-backed Fatah movement, and it has formed an alliance with Iran.

The two Palestinian groups recently signed a reconciliation agreement that is supposed to lead to the formation of a joint government, though little has changed so far.

Yesterday, Hamas released a statement mourning Mr. Shama’s death. He died, the group said, “after a long journey of jihad that he spent, along with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in teaching, educating, and promoting the noble cause of Islam and jihad.’’

Mr. Shama was born in Ashkelon, now in Israel, according to the Hamas statement. He became a refugee, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, in the war that followed Israel’s creation in 1948.

He was arrested repeatedly by Israel. In 1992, he was among some 400 Hamas men whom Israel expelled to south Lebanon. They were later allowed back under international pressure.

Mr. Shama’s funeral was set to be held at Gaza’s biggest mosque after Friday prayers with top Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.