The Palestinian resistance group Hamas has a complex history closely tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this analysis, we will explore the origins of Hamas, its beliefs, its interactions with the rival faction Fatah, and the obstacles it poses to peace in the area.
The Emergence of Hamas
Hamas, short for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), is a fundamentalist Islamic organization with a central goal: to destroy Israel and establish an independent Islamic Palestinian state. Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by numerous countries, including the United States, Canada, and the European Union.
Hamas’s Core Objective
Hamas’s primary objective is to replace Israel, often referred to as the “Zionist entity,” with an independent Islamic Palestinian state that would encompass the entire territory of Israel, extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This ambitious vision considers any Israeli presence in the region as an occupation.
Fatah: A Rival in the Palestinian Landscape
It’s important to note that Hamas is not the only group active in Palestinian politics. Fatah is another significant faction and was established in 1959. Yasser Arafat led the party for many years. Fatah has a complex past, initially serving as both a nationalist terrorist group and a political party.
Fatah’s Political Dominance
Fatah is more than just a political party. It controls the West Bank and used to govern Gaza up to ten years ago. Fatah is also the largest group within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is an important entity in the politics of Palestine.
Shifts in Fatah’s Status
For much of its history, Western governments regarded Fatah and the PLO as terrorist organizations, but this changed in 1991. In 1988, the PLO publicly renounced violence, officially recognized Israel’s right to exist, and expressed willingness to negotiate. This shift led to the removal of the terrorist label by the US and the United Nations.
The Roots of Hamas: The Muslim Brotherhood
Understanding the roots of Hamas requires us to look back at the start of the 1900s. This was when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamic organization in Egypt in 1928. The group had two main goals: to address the lack of social services, such as education and charity, and to resist the spread of Western secularization caused by European imperialism in Arab communities.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Dual Role
In Arab countries, the Muslim Brotherhood became popular by offering important social services. Their main goal was to oppose secularization in Muslim nations and create societies governed by a strict interpretation of the Quran and Sharia law. They used their social service networks to encourage political participation among members and accomplish these objectives.
From Peaceful Initiatives to Violence
The Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt, and many regional governments saw it as a potential threat. This was especially true because the movement had a large following in the country. In 1954, the Brotherhood tried to assassinate the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, which led to the imprisonment of thousands of its members. As a result, the group became less active for about ten years.
Revival and Renewed Objectives
In 1970, newly-elected Egyptian President Anwar Sadat released imprisoned Brotherhood leaders, allowing them to rebuild the movement. This time, their official stance emphasized opposition to violence, focusing on social services. However, their underlying commitment to establishing a society governed by fundamentalist Islamic principles remained steadfast.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine
By the 1980s, a religious and political shift was occurring across Arab countries, as some began to transition from secularism back to religious and, in some cases, fundamentalist ideologies. The Muslim Brotherhood had long been active in Gaza and the West Bank, building mosques and providing services like loans and charities.
Formation of Hamas
In 1987, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a religious leader, made a significant move that changed the political landscape in Gaza. He formed a new organization called Hamas by merging the existing Muslim Brotherhood presence in Gaza. Unlike Fatah, Hamas based its ideology on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and aimed to establish an independent Palestinian state through religious means.
Early Activities and Objectives
Historian Anita Shapiro notes that Hamas initially focused on providing social services and education while maintaining the long-term goal of destroying Israel and its Jewish population. However, they did not consider it the right time to pursue this objective through violence. Instead, they emphasized values such as integrity, avoidance of corruption, and adherence to religious prohibitions, including the consumption of alcohol.
Initial Israeli Support for Hamas
The Israeli government supported Hamas, even though the group was openly anti-Semitic. This was surprising because Hamas posed a risk to Israel. Israel hoped that supporting Hamas would weaken Fatah and prevent violent attacks. However, this strategy turned out to be short-sighted because Hamas’s goals and tactics changed over time.
The First Intifada and Hamas’ Transformation
In December 1987, the First Intifada started as a Palestinian movement of demonstrations and protests. It later grew to include coordinated attacks using firearms, grenades, and explosives.
Hamas’ Role in the First Intifada
Hamas participated in the First Intifada, and its members began to convince Sheikh Ahmed Yassin that it was time to abandon the wait-and-see approach and initiate a holy war to destroy Israel through violence. This shift in strategy marked a pivotal moment in Hamas’ evolution.
The Oslo Accords and Continued Violence
The 1990s witnessed the signing of the Oslo Accords, which aimed to halt the violence and initiate a path toward a two-state solution. However, Hamas continued its campaign of suicide bombings in Israel, resulting in the deaths of over 200 Israeli citizens. The situation became so dire that many Israelis lived in fear of everyday activities such as taking a bus or shopping, fearing potential attacks.
The failure of negotiations and the persistence of terrorism led to the Second Intifada, which spanned from 2000 to 2005. During these years, Hamas played a significant role, carrying out numerous suicide attacks. The violence included bombings at locations such as tourist attractions and shopping malls, significantly impacting daily life.
Israeli Response: Operation Defensive Shield
In response to escalating violence, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initiated Operation Defensive Shield, aiming to quell the attacks by targeting terrorists and disrupting the supply chain for explosives. During the Second Intifada, approximately 4,200 Palestinians were killed, with varying estimates of civilian casualties ranging from 35% to 50%.
Disengagement from Gaza and Palestinian Elections
In 2004, following a particularly tumultuous period, Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza by 2005, unilaterally disengaging from the territory. This development had far-reaching consequences, as it set the stage for subsequent events in Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian Elections of 2006
With the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, the Palestinian territories held elections in 2006. In a surprising turn of events, Hamas emerged victorious in the legislative elections, securing a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. This election result signified a dramatic shift in Palestinian politics and governance.
Palestinian Civil War
Hamas’s electoral victory in Gaza created tensions and hostilities with Fatah, which refused to relinquish control. The ensuing power struggle culminated in the Palestinian Civil War, a violent and bloody conflict that lasted for almost 17 months. Ultimately, Hamas gained the upper hand, consolidating its control over Gaza, while Fatah retained control of the West Bank.
Fatah vs. Hamas: Elusive Reconciliation
Efforts to reconcile the two Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed, and general elections have not been held since 2006. Consequently, both Fatah and Hamas have faced criticism for their governance and a lack of democratic processes.
Hamas’ Continued Attacks and Israel’s Responses
Hamas has not abandoned its militant tactics. The group has continued launching rocket attacks, engaging in kidnappings, and orchestrating other forms of violence against Israel. These actions have prompted several military operations by Israel in response.
Israel’s Military Operations
Israel has conducted numerous military campaigns to counteract Hamas’s aggression, with the most notable operations being Protective Edge (2014) and Operation Guardian of the Walls (2021). These operations aimed to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities and suppress its rocket attacks.
Civilian Casualties and Controversies
The conflict has been marked by civilian casualties on both sides, sparking significant international criticism. Accusations of human rights violations, disproportionate use of force, and allegations of using civilians as shields have plagued both Hamas and Israel.
Challenges to Peace and Possible Solutions
As the conflict between Hamas and Israel continues, significant obstacles to peace persist. The fundamental disconnect between Hamas’s core objective of destroying Israel and Israel’s right to exist presents a profound challenge to any resolution.
Prospects of Change in Hamas
In recent years, there have been indications that Hamas may be revising its stance, with some leaders suggesting a willingness to consider a long-term ceasefire or a two-state solution. However, these statements have not led to concrete actions or agreements, and the organization remains committed to its ultimate goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state through non-negotiable means.
International Mediation Efforts
Various international actors, including the United States, the United Nations, and neighboring countries like Egypt and Qatar, have attempted to mediate between Hamas and Israel. These efforts have yielded temporary ceasefires but have not addressed the root causes of the conflict.
In conclusion, Hamas, with its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, has evolved from a primarily social and religious organization to a militant group with a singular objective: the destruction of Israel. Its complex history, rivalry with Fatah, and continued use of violence have made it a central player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite some recent changes in rhetoric, the conflict remains deeply rooted and unresolved, posing significant challenges for both parties and the international community. Reaching a lasting and just resolution remains a formidable task that will require the commitment of all regional stakeholders.