What is Hamas?

Backgrounder

What is Hamas?

Mubaraz Ahmed

05 Oct 2015

Hamas continues to be a destabilising force in the Israel-Palestine peace process. Mubaraz Ahmed looks at its origins, its ideology, and how it continues to operate in Gaza and further afield.

Israel and Palestine have long dominated the politics of the Middle East. Numerous conferences and summits have been held, ceasefires agreed and broken, but a solution to the situation seems no clearer. Since the late 1980s, Hamas has been a leading player in the conflict, engaging in repeated conflict with Israel from its stronghold in the Gaza Strip, from the suicide bombing campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s, to the rocket barrages that prompted the summer 2014 war. But where did the group come from, and what are its aims?

Hamas is a nationalist-Islamist militant and political movement that operates as one of the two major political parties in the Palestinian territories. Founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood during the first intifada against Israel, Hamas became the leading force in the Palestinian armed resistance, and is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union. But the group is much more than a militia: running parallel to the group's military activities are social projects that include schools and hospitals.

Hamas became the leading force in the Palestinian armed resistance.

Hamas was founded as the local political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood by Ahmed Yassin and other members of the Brotherhood who planned to establish schools and clinics in the West Bank and Gaza. Their efforts even gained support at the time from some Israeli politicians who viewed them as potential alternatives to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), led at the time by Yasser Arafat. However, Hamas's primary objective has always been to confront Israel, as it considers it to represent the occupation of Muslim land. The group's name speaks to this aim: it is derived from the acronym of 'Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamia,' (Islamic Resistance Movement). The word Hamas itself can mean 'strength' or 'bravery.'

In 1988 Hamas published its official charter, which deviated from the Muslim Brotherhood's nonviolent approach. Article one of Hamas' charter states that the group derives its "ideas, ways of thinking and understanding of the universe, life and man" from Islam. On the subject of jihad, the charter states that it becomes a duty for every Muslim to take part in it when "enemies" seize Muslim territory. Article eight states that "the Quran is its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes." The ideology of the group is further highlighted in article 13, labelling peaceful solutions as contradictory to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Nevertheless, despite Hamas' stubborn stance on dialogue, in September 2014 a senior official of the group suggested that the group might be open to negotiating on matters such as border-crossings and prisoner releases.

It was in the 1990s that Hamas began a campaign of suicide bomb attacks on civilian and military targets in Israel. Suicide bombing campaigns were relatively unheard of when Hamas employed them against Israeli targets in an effort to derail the peace process. According to data from the University of Chicago, 742 civilians were killed and 4,899 were injured by suicide bombings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories between 1993 and 2015.

The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades are the military wing of Hamas, responsible for carrying out military campaigns against Israel. They became active in the early 1990s, taking their name from the Syrian preacher Izzedine al-Qassam, who in 1930 formed a militant organisation in opposition to the British Mandate in Palestine. The Brigades have employed suicide bombings, car bombings and rocket attacks in their attacks on Israel. It has been reported that the Brigades consist of 7,000-10,000 full time fighters and a further 20,000 fighters i n r eserve.

742 civilians have been killed and 4,899 injured in attacks by Hamas.

Hamas' main political rival is the secular group Fatah, the largest contingent in the cross-party PLO (which does not include Hamas). Fatah is generally considered to be moderate by Western nations, although many Palestinians view it as corrupt and ineffective. In 2006 Fatah lost its majority in the Palestinian parliament, leading to a conflict between Hamas and Fatah in which over 200 fighters from both sides were killed. This was followed in June 2007 by a brief civil war between the two parties, resulting in Hamas taking control of Gaza. Despite several attempts at reconciliation, the status quo of the Palestinian territories leaves Hamas in control of Gaza, and Fatah of the West Bank.

The second intifada began in September 2000, when Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Israeli opposition, visited the al-Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem, the third most holy site in Islam, also believed to be the site of the ancient Jewish temple. The anger generated among many Palestinians by the failure of years of negotiations since the Oslo Accords failing to deliver a state for them were exacerbated by the collapse of the Camp David summit in 2000. Violence erupted at al-Haram al-Sharif, and spread throughout the Palestinian territories.

Hamas and the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades carried out a series of attacks on Israeli targets during the intifada, including an attack on the Israeli resort of Netanya during the Passover in 2002, which killed 28 people. In retaliation, Israeli forces targeted some of the group's senior officials, killing military commander Saleh Shehada and founder Sheikh Yassin among a number of others.

Khaled Meshaal, the current leader of Hamas, emerged as the leading figure of Hamas after Yassin's death in 2004. He operates within what has been described as three circles of leadership of the organisation. In the first layer are the local leaders whose primary responsibility is to gain local support for the group's activities. The second layer, including Meshaal, comprises of Hamas' external leadership that operates as a "political bureau," and liaises with international leaders and financiers. The final layer involves the Muslim Brotherhood's most senior international leaders, who are believed to hold significant influence in determining Hamas' strategy. This third layer has meant that events in Egypt have a significant impact on the group, with the government of President Sisi declaring it a terrorist organisation at the same time as taking action against the Muslim Brotherhood leadership within Egypt.

The official end of the second intifada was not recognised by Hamas, which has continued to launch barrages of rockets since, interspersed by intervals of quiet. The group's charter will not allow anything more than a temporary truce with Israel, although it makes extensive use of truces when they are in its interests. Nevertheless, the group's actions have led to several Israeli incursions in Gaza, including in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014, with thousands of resultant casualties.

In 2006, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Two Israeli offensives failed to rescue him, but many were killed on both sides, including senior Hamas leaders. Eventually, Shalit was released in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in October 2011.

The group's charter will not allow anything more than a temporary truce with Israel.

Hamas operations are not, however, restricted to Gaza. In June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered by Hamas activists in the West Bank. An apparently retaliatory murder by Israeli extremists of a Palestinian teenager sparked heavy rocket fire into Israel from Gaza. The ensuing 50-day military incursion into the territory resulted in over 2,000 deaths.

In these successive operations, Israel and the international community have accused Hamas of failing to protect its citizens and compromising the safety of thousands of residents by employing tactics that see rockets fired from densely populated residential areas. But despite the high casualties and damage to infrastructure incurred, Hamas has emerged from most clashes stronger and with a more active support network. This has helped Hamas consolidate its public portrayal across the Palestinian territories as an effective means of countering Israel. Even so, as Hamas has not held elections in the Gaza Strip since its landslide victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, it is hard to judge the extent of its popular support.

In the wake of the 'price tag' attack in the West Bank that killed three members of the Dawabsha family in August 2015, Hamas declared that the Palestinian people had no alternative to "open and comprehensive confrontation against the occupation." Hamas has previously used such instances of violence against Palestinians to further its own goals and to carry out attacks against Israeli targets. Amid escalating tensions at the al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem in September 2015, Hamas warned of "harsh consequences" for what it considered to be the "desecration" of the al-Aqsa mosque. Not long after this warning, an Israeli couple was gunned down in the West Bank. Hamas' armed wing praised the actions as "heroic" and in response to Israeli actions in Jerusalem

Hamas' annual budget in 2014 was reportedly 894 million dollars, with well over half of that figure going towards wages and salaries. Some Palestinians feel that aid funds for Gaza are being misappropriated by Hamas and are being used to bankroll its own operations. Meanwhile, much of Hamas' own financial support comes from Palestinian expatriates and private donors from the oil-rich Gulf nations who sympathise with its cause.

However, the aftermath of the Arab uprisings has not left Hamas untouched. Iran has supported the group for many years, via Syria and Hizbullah, its Lebanese proxy. Despite recent reports that it is stepping up its funding, the Syrian civil war has disrupted the supply network and imposed some ideological obstacles. Hamas, with the broader Muslim Brotherhood, supported the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. The organisation's leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, moved from Syria to Qatar. Hizbullah and Iran, in contrast, supported Assad both militarily and financially.

Hamas' relationship with its longstanding ally Iran has become increasingly strained over recent months. Not only has Hamas refused to lend its support to the Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it has also started to establish more cordial relations with two of Iran's biggest regional foes, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Reports from Tehran suggest that Iran is looking at backing alternative groups in the Gaza Strip, allies who would demonstrate greater loyalty than Hamas.

The Syrian conflict has disrupted Hamas' supply network.

While support for Hamas (and Hizbullah) was previously something that united much of the Middle East, both groups now find themselves on opposite sides of a deepening sectarian divide. Hamas is supported by Qatar, which is also supporting certain Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and is deeply opposed to Iran. Turkey, which is also close to elements of the Syrian opposition, has also supported Hamas.

Another effect that the Syrian civil war has had on Hamas is in the development of a rival Islamist group in the region. ISIS posted a video in June 2015 threatening Hamas and vowing to end its rule in the Palestinian territories. ISIS condemned Hamas for its crackdown on Salafis in Gaza and what it considered to be the group's failure to adequately implement the Sharia. There was further condemnation for Hamas' willingness to deal with Iranian authorities and Hizbullah, both of which are Shia, as well as Hamas' relations with nationalist, secularist, and communist factions.

While there is some doubt that ISIS is in a position within Gaza to overthrow Hamas, this nevertheless poses a threat to the group. Another ISIS affiliate is currently fighting Egyptian authorities (and firing rockets into Israel) just over Gaza's border with Egypt. While Hamas viewed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as a strong ally, the group's relationship with the Sisi government has been rather different. In February 2015 an Egyptian court listed Hamas as a terrorist organisation after accusations of support an insurgency northern Sinai. Though not openly declaring Hamas as the intended target, the Egyptian government has been escalating its efforts in safeguarding the country's border in the restive Sinai Peninsula with the Gaza Strip. Hamas' use of a network of tunnels on the border has been well documented, though the purpose of such channels have been criticised. While Hamas insists the tunnels provide a vital lifeline for supplies to reach the Gaza Strip, Egyptian authorities have accused the group of fuelling the insurgency in the Sinai region by providing logistical support to the ISIS' Egyptian affiliate, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

Meanwhile, repeated wars with Israel have left living conditions in the Gaza Strip very poor. If Hamas fails to demonstrate to citizens of the territory that it is the power most able to help them, the allure of ISIS' repeated successes elsewhere may grant it a foothold in the territory. 

This article was originally published on 8 July 2015. It was updated on 5 October 2015.

 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.