A creation of the first intifada, Hamas has risen from a charity in Gaza to a key, controversial force of the Palestinians’ fight against occupation
This is an ongoing story. Ever since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, there were at least three major conflicts between Israel and Hamas. It’s an irony that Hamas, whose founding members were encouraged by Israel in the 1970s and 80s against Yasser Arafat’s secular national movement, has turned out to be Israel’s biggest rival in the Palestinian territories.
The roots of Hamas go back to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, established by Egyptian Islamist Hasan al-Banna, made a presence in the British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s. Its focus had been on reorienting Muslim society, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), founded in 1964, would champion the nationalist sentiments of the Palestinians. After Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and Gaza Strip from Egypt in 1967, the PLO, vowing to liberate the whole of Palestine, would start a guerilla war against Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood would still stay away from politics, but their leadership was increasingly critical of the PLO’s secular nationalism.
The Brotherhood’s approach was that time for “jihad” had not come yet and they should first rebuild a stronger, pious Islamic society — they called it “the upbringing of an Islamic generation”. During this time, Israel established contacts with the Brotherhood leadership in the occupied territories. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the physically challenged, half-blind cleric of the Brotherhood, established al-Mujamma’ al-Islam (The Islamic Centre) in 1973. Israel recognised the Centre first as a charity and then as an association. This allowed Yassin to raise funds, build mosques and set up educational institutions, including the Islamic University of Gaza. But the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran would change the landscape of Islamist politics across West Asia. Islamist organisations, having witnessed the political success of the Mullahs in Iran, started becoming politically more ambitious and active.
Hamas was established after the first intifada broke out in 1987. The occupied territories were swept by a public uprising. The PLO called on its supporters to join the intifada. The Brotherhood also found it an opportunity to enter the struggle against the occupation. On December 14, the Brotherhood, under the leadership of Yassin, issued a leaflet, asking Palestinians to stand up to the Israeli occupation. In January, they issued another leaflet under the name Harakat al-Muqawamal-Islamfrya (the Islamic Resistance Movement) — in short, Hamas, which means “zeal” in Arabic. In 1989, Hamas launched its first attack against Israel, abducting and killing two soldiers. Israel cracked down on the group, arresting Yassin and jailing him for life.
Unlike the PLO, which was modelled around the leftist guerilla national movements in the third world, Hamas had a completely different vision. The charter it issued on August 19, 1988 was studded with anti-Semitic remarks. According to the charter, Palestine is “an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Moslem generations until Judgement Day”; “there is no solution to the Palestine problem except jihad” and all peace initiatives are a “waste of time and acts of absurdity”. When the PLO moved to join peace efforts seeking a solution to the Palestinian issue, Hamas hardened its position. It opposed the Oslo agreement, which allowed the formation of the Palestinian Authority with limited powers within the occupied territories. When the PLO recognised Israel, Hamas rejected the two-state solution and vowed to liberate the whole of Palestine “from the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea”. It has built a organisation with several branches. It has a social wing that is involved in Islamic education and charity works, and a military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, that is involved in military planning and weapons acquisitions. It also has a political bureau. In October 1994, a year after the Oslo Accord was signed, Hamas carried out its first suicide attacks, killing 22 in Tel Aviv.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Hamas carried out several suicide attacks, targeting Israelis. In 2000, when the second intifada broke out, Hamas was in the driving seat. Hamas supporters fought pitched street battles with Israeli troops, who used brute force to crush the protests. Israel had also taken a policy of targeted assassinations. Hamas continued to remain defiant, targeting Israeli troops and settlers. In 2005, faced with Hamas’s violent resistance, Israel unilaterally decided to pull out of Gaza.
Hamas’s violent tactics and Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in return seemed to have helped the Islamists gain popularity. In the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territory, Hamas won 74 out of the 132 seats, while Fatah, the PLO’s backbone, got only 45 seats. Hamas formed the government in the Palestinian territories, but faced opposition from Israel and most international powers. Like Israel, the U.S. and several European countries have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation. As tensions rose between Fatah and Hamas in West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Hamas government and declared a state of emergency. This led to violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah ousted Hamas from the West Bank and Hamas ousted the former from Gaza in 2007. Since then, Hamas is the government in Gaza. Following Hamas’s capture of Gaza, Israel has imposed a blockade on the strip, which practically turned the territory of 2 million people into an open prison.
While Hamas never gave up its right to armed resistance, the organisation’s outlook has evolved over the years, like the PLO’s did in the pre-Oslo years. It still refuses to recognise Israel but has offered hudna (a lasting ceasefire) if Israel returned to the 1967 border. In 2017, it adopted a new charter from which the anti-Semitic remarks of the original charter were expunged. The new document stated Hamas is not seeking war with the Jewish people — only with Zionism that drives the occupation of Palestine. “Hamas advocates the liberation of all of Palestine but is ready to support the state on 1967 borders without recognising Israel or ceding any rights,” it said back then.
Ideally, this should have opened a new beginning. But Israel continues to maintain the position that it won’t hold talks with a “terrorist entity” that doesn’t recognise it, while at the same time deepening the occupation. Hamas’s view is that unless Israel withdraws to the 1967 border, there won’t be peace. It’s a stalemate.
Hamas may not have the capability to push Israel back to the 1967 border or the deterrence to stop Israel from pounding Gaza. But it does two things with its resistance to the superior Israeli Army — one, it has emerged as a key force in Palestine’s political landscape, which in the past had largely been driven by secular nationalism. A solution to the Israel-Palestine problem cannot be reached without taking Hamas into consideration. Two, its survives. Over the years, Hamas has lost most of its founding leaders, it is categorised as a terrorist outfit by the U.S. and others and it faces disproportionate Israeli attacks frequently. Every time it bombs Gaza, Israel vows to destroy Hamas’s militant infrastructure. But Hamas survives, to fight another day.
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