Terror and Beyond
What is Hamas? One answer is clear: It’s the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, an impoverished sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt that’s home to 1.8 million Palestinians. Beyond that, perceptions of the group differ. Some say it’s a terrorist group that poses a grave obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a gang of thugs that seized the Gaza Strip at gunpoint. Others argue it’s a true representative of Palestinians, won over by its grassroots charitable work and its lack of corruption. Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, is a rival to the Fatah party, which governs the West Bank and has long been Israel’s partner in peace talks. Some Hamas leaders have suggested that it could modify its hardline anti-Israel stance if an acceptable peace deal was offered. Israelis are skeptical, to say the least.
In January, Fatah and Hamas announced the intention to form a single government. It was the latest of many such plans since Hamas won the last Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and gained control over Gaza’s government in a bloody battle with Fatah the following year. A unity government created in mid-2014 functioned for a year without managing to hold new elections. That’s left Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority, which is charged with administering self-rule in the territories under various agreements with Israel, though his term officially expired in 2009. The terms of Palestinian legislators ended in 2010; their council ceased functioning after the 2007 dustup. Since Hamas last fought a war with Israel, in 2014, attacks on Israeli targets have been far less frequent. Groups more radical than Hamas are thought to be responsible for many of the rockets since launched from Gaza into Israel. But because Hamas controls the territory, Israel nonetheless holds it responsible. Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005 while maintaining control, with Egypt, over its borders. Israel’s military continues to patrol in the West Bank, which is of greater strategic and religious importance to Israelis.
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 against Israeli occupation 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 as well as health-care and educational needs. Its campaign against corruption in the Palestinian Authority led to its surprise victory in the 2006 election. 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. Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, it’s had four confrontations with Israel in which more than 100 people died. The 2014 war killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, and caused mass destruction in Gaza. Hamas has received financial support from Qatar. It’s been rebuilding relations with long-time benefactor Iran, after ties became strained in 2012 when the two took opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Many Palestinians think the group’s militancy may one day compel Israel to allow their people full independence. They note that Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 in the face of resistance from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and that Israeli forces and civilian settlers departed from Gaza. Yet many Israelis say the aftermath of the Gaza pullout — thousands of rocket attacks from the territory and the building of tunnels into Israel that facilitate attacks — is a reason they can never relinquish control of Gaza’s borders or of the West Bank. Abbas has argued that Hamas can be brought around to accepting peaceful coexistence with Israel. Some sections of the organization have 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. Israel doesn’t buy it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted the last direct peace talks in 2014 when Fatah agreed to take Hamas into its government.
The Reference Shelf
- A Council on Foreign Relations background paper on Hamas and its interactive guide to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
- The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research tracks opinion on Hamas and other matters.
- “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror,” a 2006 book by journalist 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
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