The Arab defeat of June 1967 marked the start of an "awakening" of the Islamist trend. After Anwar al-Sadat assumed power in Egypt in May 1971, the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Egyptian political scene contributed to the growing role played by the group in the Gaza Strip, which had chosen a shaykh, a cleric named Ahmad Yasin, in 1968 as the organization’s leader. Yasin began to work actively to build up the organization’s core in Gaza; in 1973, he founded the initial core of what was then called al-Mujammaʿ al-Islami (the Islamic Center), which consisted of a mosque, clinic, crèches, and a committee to manage zakat (alms). Yasin also founded al-Jamʿiyya al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Association) in 1976 and played a role in the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza in 1978. By 1979, the Islamic Center, which had as many as 2,000 members, had obtained an official permit from the Israeli occupation authorities, who believed that overlooking the “social activism” of the Islamists would help to weaken the popularity of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The group’s expansion in that period was not restricted to the Gaza Strip; it also extended to the occupied West Bank. The Muslim Brotherhood received steadily increasing material support from different Arab regimes, particularly after the landslide victory of the PLO’s candidates (which included a number of communists) in the West Bank’s municipal elections of April 1976.
The Muslim Brotherhood started to play a more noticeable role in politics, especially on Palestinian university campuses, in the early eighties. Its activities were focused primarily on opposing the secular agenda of the PLO. At the same time, it believed that it was "still in the preparatory stage of grooming a generation of Islamists that would lead the transformation of the society into an Islamic one, as the first step towards the declaration of jihad [holy war]." These positions taken by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership contributed to a split within its ranks and encouraged the formation of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, which adopted the strategy of armed struggle.
When the popular uprising later known as the first intifada broke out in December 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership had no choice but to make the shift from "traditional Islamism" to "jihadist Islam" if it wanted to retain and strengthen its popularity. Seven of its leaders, headed by Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, met in Gaza City on 9 December 1987 and agreed to set up the organizational framework for a group that would enable the Brotherhood to conduct jihad against the occupation. The name Hamas—the Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Movement of Islamic Resistance)—came to public attention in its first communiqué, released a few days later, on 14 December.
From the Gaza Strip, Hamas expanded its activity to the West Bank in January 1988. The movement participated in strike actions and street clashes with the occupation. It began to emerge as a parallel and competing organization to the PLO through its independent activities and to conduct armed actions against Israeli targets through its military wing, which was initially called the Palestinian Mujahideen and led by Salah Shehadeh. It subsequently grew and since May 1990 has been called the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades. Among its prominent leaders were Bashir Hammad, Imad Aql, Yahya Ayyash [al-muhandis or “the engineer”], and Mohammed Deif.
Concerning the organizational structure of Hamas, the movement practices shura (“consultation” in Muslim tradition) within its organizational and institutional structures, which hold regular elections in all its sectors every four years to choose the movement’s leaders. The General Shura Council, the highest organizational body within the movement, elects the political bureau and its head.
Political Orientations of Hamas
On 18 August 1988, Hamas issued its charter, which outlined the movement’s ideological bases and objectives, reaffirming that Hamas was “an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine” and that it “embraced Islam as a way of life.” The movement considered Palestine to be a waqf, or religious endowment "that was the inalienable property of the generations of Muslims to come until Judgment Day [….] to relinquish any part of it would be wrong,” and that the liberation of Palestine was a fard, or religious obligation “that every Muslim wherever he may be is enjoined with." In describing “the enemy camp," Hamas’s charter did not distinguish "Zionists" from "Jews." Instead, it focused on the latter, considering them as "having amassed enormous, influential material wealth, which they have employed to realize their dream." Its charter indicated that it had “mutual respect” for the [secular] nationalist movements in Palestinian politics, that “its hands were joined to theirs, so long as they do not give allegiance to the Communist East or the Crusader West," and that it saw the PLO as "the closest of allies to the Islamic Resistance Movement"; however, it also insisted that the idea of the secular nation-state adopted by the PLO was "in complete contradiction with the religious concept."
The PLO leadership initially tried to contain Hamas by accommodating it, offering it membership in the Palestine National Council (PNC) in 1988, but the group refused to participate in the PLO’s governing bodies. On the eve of the PNC’s nineteenth session in mid-November 1988, where the Palestinian "Peace Initiative" was to be adopted, Hamas was prominent in making its rejection of any political settlement with Israel clearly known, insisting in an appeal made on 10 November to the members of the PNC that “the battle with the Zionists is not one over where to draw borders nor a dispute over a piece of land,” but rather it is a “battle for destiny and survival.” In a statement issued on 7 October 1991, the movement opposed the participation of the PLO in the peace conference in Madrid, which had been approved by a majority of PNC members during its twentieth session; it considered any Palestinian delegation formed on the basis of the resolutions made in that session to be "illegitimate and not representative of the Palestinian people." On 24 October, Hamas was one of ten other Palestinian factions that issued a statement calling on the PLO leadership to rescind its decision to participate in the Madrid Conference, "whose aim is to eliminate our cause and obliterate holy Jerusalem (bayt al-maqdis)." Later, it strongly opposed the Oslo Agreement and, in the words of Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, considered the signatories to the "recognition of the State of Israel" to have surrendered “our land, our civilization, our heritage and all we hold sacred, which [Israel] had taken by force."
The Armed Activity of Hamas
Hamas launched its military operations under the name Palestinian Mujahideen in the spring of 1988. This prompted the Israelis to launch a massive crackdown on the movement and its military apparatus in May 1989, during which it arrested Shaykh Ahmad Yasin along with many leaders and cadres. An Israeli military court sentenced Yasin to life imprisonment plus an additional fifteen years. He was released on 1 October 1997 in a prisoner exchange between Jordan and Israel. The Israelis released him in exchange for two Mossad agents, whom the Jordanian authorities had apprehended in the capital Amman, right after their failed attempt to assassinate Khalid Mishal, the chief of Hamas’s politburo.
In December 1992, Hamas fighters from what was renamed as Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades carried out an operation where they captured and killed an Israeli soldier, Naseem Toledano. The Israelis responded to this with a fresh series of arrests within the movement. They also deported 415 activists from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement to Marj al-Zuhur in southern Lebanon. Israel eventually gave in to pressure from the Americans, who were interested in keeping Arab-Israeli negotiations going, and permitted them to return. In 1993 and 1994, the movement intensified its military activities, which took a more violent turn with a string of suicide operations in the heart of Israel. This culminated in a series of suicide bombings on buses in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv in February and March 1996, in response to the Israeli assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the leader of the Qassam Brigades, on 5 January 1996.
Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority
Hamas continued its military activities even after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) in 1994, but refrained from clashing openly with it. In response, the PA imposed restrictions on the group. On the eve of the elections held in January 1996 for the Legislative Council, Hamas announced that it would boycott the elections, because they were “being conducted under the umbrella of the Oslo Agreement.” In 1997 and 1998, the PA continued its clampdown on the movement’s military activities. In April 1998, its security services arrested a number of Hamas leaders, including Dr. Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, who was the movement’s official spokesman.
When the second intifada erupted in late September 2000, there was a relative thaw in relations between the PA and Fatah on the one hand, and Hamas on the other. However, following the events of 11 September 2001, Hamas was subjected to a widescale Israeli and Western targeting campaign, under the pretext that it was a "terrorist" movement. The Israeli occupation authorities assassinated a number of the movement's most prominent leaders between 2001 and 2003: Jamal Salim, Jamal Mansour, Mahmoud Abu Hanud, Salah Shehadeh, Ibrahim al-Makadmeh, and Ismail Abu Shanab. Then, at dawn on 22 March 2004, an Israeli Apache helicopter fired three missiles at Shaykh Ahmad Yasin as he was coming out of the Islamic Centre’s Mosque in Gaza City’s Sabra neighborhood in his wheelchair along with seven of his companions, killing them on the spot. (Two of his sons were also injured in the attack.) After Yasin's assassination, the movement elected Rantisi as his successor to the leadership. But less than a month after he took charge, on 17 April 2004, another Israeli Apache helicopter fired three missiles at his car in Gaza, killing him along with his son Muhammad and another companion.
Taking Control of the Gaza Strip
Hamas’s change in strategy to gradually integrate itself into the Palestinian political system became apparent in 2004, when it participated in local elections that Yasir Arafat called for on 5 May. (They had been postponed since 1996.) The movement performed well. Then came the announcement by Ariel Sharon's government of its decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, which encouraged the Hamas leadership to take further steps on the path to integration into the PA. This integration became a fact after the death of Yasir Arafat in November 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of both the PA and the PLO in January 2005. Just a few weeks after his election, the new president managed to reach an agreement with the Hamas leadership along with other Palestinian factions after a series of meetings held in Cairo. The agreement stipulated that those factions who were armed must desist from military operations until the end of 2005, that legislative elections be held, and that talks would begin to make Hamas and Islamic Jihad part of the PLO.
In the legislative elections, held in January 2006, Hamas won a majority of the seats in the legislative assembly, which led to a polarization of the Palestinian political arena into two camps. Following the departure of the last Israeli soldier from the Gaza Strip on 12 September 2005, this polarization became more extreme and was reflected in a growing state of lawlessness and lack of security, with recurring armed clashes between Palestinian policemen and Hamas fighters. These clashes eventually escalated into all-out conflict, and in mid-June 2007 resulted in Hamas taking complete control of Gaza by military force, which led to a political and administrative split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Hamas as Ruling Party
After Hamas assumed control of the Gaza Strip, several attempts have been made since late February 2009 to end the internal Palestinian split, all of which have failed until mid-2022. Since the Hamas takeover, Israel imposed a suffocating siege on the Gaza Strip, which has caused the living conditions of its residents to considerably deteriorate. Israel also launched four major wars on Gaza between late 2008 and the spring of 2021 that resulted in the death of thousands of Palestinian civilians and tens of thousands of wounded and handicapped; thousands of houses, workshops, and factories were also destroyed. After taking over the Gaza Strip, Hamas put a halt to bomb attacks, or "martyrdom operations.” But when Israel launched its massive attacks, Hamas began to launch rockets that had been either smuggled through tunnels into Gaza or manufactured locally. The latter were progressively improved and grew in number, as the May 2021 confrontation demonstrated.
Hamas’s New Charter and New Leadership
On the evening of 1 May 2017, Khalid Mishal, the Hamas politburo chief at the time, announced from Doha a new political charter for the movement, "Document of General Principles and Policies," which supported the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The charter stated that Hamas considers “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.” For Hamas, this by no means implied “a recognition of the Zionist entity, nor the relinquishing of any Palestinian rights." In this charter, the movement also severed any overt ties it had with the Muslim Brotherhood, stating as part of its new self-definition: “The Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement. Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam, which determines its principles, objectives and means.” This document also made the distinction between Jews and Zionists, using the word “Zionists” when it emphasized: “the Zionist project is a racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others; it is hostile to the Palestinian people and to their aspiration for freedom, liberation, return and self-determination. The Israeli entity is the plaything of the Zionist project and its base of aggression.”
Hamas issued this charter as a kind of stepping-stone toward gaining recognition at a global level. However, its new political discourse did not noticeably affect its standing on the international stage.
On 6 May 2017, Hamas announced the result of its internal elections, held across the Gaza Strip, West Bank, inside Israeli prisons, and outside Palestine: forty-five members were elected to the General Shura Council, who in turn elected nineteen members to the politburo for a four-year term; Ismail Haniyeh was elected as bureau chief to succeed Khalid Mishal, who had held this position since 1996. Prior to this, the movement had elected Yahya Sinwar as head of the movement in Gaza. In April 2021, Hamas reelected Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar to their respective position; Salah Aruri assumed responsibility for the organization in the West Bank; and Khalid Mishal was in charge outside Palestine.
Hamas's Foreign Relations
Since the early 1990s, Syria has supported Hamas and hosted the members of the movement’s leadership who resided outside Palestine. Hamas also relied on significant political and material support that it received from Iran and established a close alliance with the Lebanese organization Hizballah. However, its relations with these allies deteriorated after it expressed support for the popular uprising in Syria starting in March 2011 and the participation of groups close to it in the activities of the armed Syrian opposition. Subsequently, the movement moved its headquarters to Qatar and renewed relations with Turkey as a historic ally. Hamas’s relations with Iran and Hizballah have significantly improved after 2017, thanks particularly to the effort made by Yahya Sinwar and the leadership of the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, which is aware that the military, technical, and financial support offered to it by Iran is irreplaceable. Hamas’s relations with the Syrian leadership, however, remain severed, and to date efforts to restore them have not succeeded.
On the other hand, Hamas’s relations with Egypt have greatly developed during the reign of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the Egyptian authorities have begun to play the role of primary mediator between it and Israel, a role that was manifestly clear after Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip in May 2021. The Egyptian authorities played an active role in brokering a cease-fire and then began to take part in the reconstruction projects in Gaza. They are also making strenuous efforts to negotiate a long-term truce between Hamas and the Israeli government.
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