Terror and Beyond

By | Updated July 9, 2015 2:19 PM UTC

What does the world make of Hamas? It has funded health clinics, schools, libraries and mosques and was swept to power in local elections by an overwhelming majority. It has also fired rockets at Israeli towns, kidnapped Israeli citizens and vowed to destroy the Jewish state, which is why Israel and the U.S. consider it a terrorist organization, period. There are many sides of Hamas, the Islamist group deeply entrenched in the Gaza Strip, an impoverished sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt that is home to 1.8 million Palestinians. One question that recurs with frequency: Can a lasting peace be forged as long as Hamas is a powerful force?

The Situation

Hamas encouraged a series of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis — stabbings, kamikaze car crashes and shootings — as well as unrest in contested east Jerusalem in late 2014. The renewed violence came in the wake of a 50-day conflict between Gaza militants and Israeli forces that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis and caused mass destruction in Gaza. A United Nations panel found evidence suggesting both sides committed war crimes during the battle. Earlier in 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted U.S.-sponsored talks aimed at a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when Hamas and Fatah, the political organization of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to create a unity government. A split in 2007 had left Hamas in charge of Gaza and Fatah in charge of the West Bank. The reconciliation has been on shaky ground since November, with mutual suspicion that has led to mass arrests by rival local authorities in both territories. Joint rule, however, has survived the strains so far.

The Background

Hamas is a spinoff of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious, social and political movement. The organization was founded in 1987 amid the first Palestinian uprising and later gained notoriety for a campaign of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis. It won popularity by establishing a network of charities that address poverty and health-care needs. Its campaign against corruption in the Palestinian Authority led to a surprise Hamas victory in the 2006 parliamentary election, and it gained control of Gaza’s government the following year after a bloody battle with Fatah. Most of Gaza’s social services are now provided by the government and the territory gets help from international aid groups like the UN. Israeli politicians make regular reference to the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. As Hamas struggled under Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on what went in and out of Gaza, some sections of the organization tried to project a more moderate image, suggesting that a peace deal with Israel would be acceptable if approved by all Palestinians in a referendum. Hamas has a leadership in exile, headed by Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal, and various chiefs within Gaza and the West Bank who control its political and military activities.

The Argument

Given its long history of violence against Israel and bad blood with Fatah, the U.S. and its allies have generally considered Hamas an obstacle in the quest for Middle East peace. At the same time, for many Palestinians, Hamas represents a satisfying answer to Israel’s occupation. In a poll in December 2014, 36 percent of Palestinians surveyed said they would vote for Hamas in legislative elections and 34 percent supported Fatah. Some observers say Hamas’s effort to end its rift with Fatah is a sign of growing pragmatism, and that unifying the Palestinians may help build the consensus needed for peace negotiations. Others say the movement was bankrupt and isolated and had little choice. Abbas has argued that Hamas should be seen as a parliamentary opposition party, and that the support of a majority of Palestinians for a two-state solution makes a diplomatic solution to the conflict achievable. He hoped to hasten that outcome by asking the United Nations Security Council to set a one-year deadline for a negotiated deal, giving Israel three years to end its occupation. The council, however, rejected the resolution as 2014 came to a close. Netanyahu had said the creation of a Palestinian state outside of negotiations with Israel would result in Hamas taking control of the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip and that Israel would never let that happen.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Council on Foreign Relations background paper on Hamas and its interactive guide to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
  • “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror,” a 2006 book by Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg about his stint in the Israeli army guarding members of Hamas.
  • “The Road to Martyrs’ Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber,” a 2005 book exploring the Hamas ideology by Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg.
  • A 2014 book by Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University, titled “Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.”
  • “The Green Prince,” a 2014 documentary film by director Nadav Schirman about the son of a Hamas leader turned Shin-Bet informant.

First published July 22, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net
Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net