Hamas (Arabic: حماس Ḥamās, “enthusiasm”, an acronym of حركة المقاومة الاسلامية Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, “Islamic Resistance Movement”) is the Palestinian Sunni Islamic or Islamist organization, with an associated military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
Since June 2007 Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip, after it won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and then defeated the Fatah political organization in a series of violent clashes. Israel, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Japan classify Hamas as a terrorist organization, while Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Arab nations do not.
Based on the principles of Islamic fundamentalism gaining momentum throughout the Arab world in the 1980s, Hamas was founded in 1987 (during the First Intifada) as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin stated in 1987, and the Hamas Charter affirmed in 1988, that Hamas was founded to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation and to establish an Islamic state in the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. However, in July 2009, Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political bureau chief, said the organization was willing to cooperate with “a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which included a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders”, provided that Palestinian refugees hold the right to return to Israel and that East Jerusalem be the new nation’s capital.
The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas affiliated military wing, has launched attacks on Israel, against both military and civilian targets. Attacks on civilian targets have included rocket attacks and, from 1993 to 2006, suicide bombings. Military targets included Israeli outposts and border crossings and rival Palestinian militias in the occupied territories.
In the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian Parliament, defeating the PLO-affiliated Fatah party. Following the elections, the United States and the EU halted financial assistance to the Hamas-led administration. In March 2007 a national unity government, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas was briefly formed, but this failed to restart international financial assistance. Tensions over control of Palestinian security forces soon erupted into the 2007 Battle of Gaza, after which Hamas retained control of Gaza while its officials were ousted from government positions in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt then imposed an economic blockade on Gaza, on the grounds that Fatah forces were no longer providing security there.
In June 2008, as part of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Hamas ceased rocket attacks on Israel and made some efforts to prevent attacks by other organizations. After a four-month calm, the conflict escalated when Israel carried out a military action with the stated aim of preventing an abduction planned by Hamas, using a tunnel that had been dug under the border security fence, and killed seven Hamas operatives. In retaliation, Hamas attacked Israel with a barrage of rockets. In late December 2008, Israel attacked Gaza, withdrawing its forces from the territory in mid-January 2009. After the Gaza War, Hamas continued to govern the Gaza Strip and Israel maintained its economic blockade. On May 4, 2011, Hamas and Fatah announced a reconciliation agreement that provides for “creation of a joint caretaker Palestinian government” prior to national elections scheduled for 2012. According to Israeli news reports quoting Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, as a condition of joining the PLO, Khaled Meshaal agreed to discontinue the “armed struggle” against Israel and accept Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders, alongside Israel.
Leadership and structure
Hamas comprises three interrelated wings – the social welfare and political wings, which are responsible for the social, administrative, political, and propaganda activities of Hamas, and the military wing, which is engaged in covert activities, such as acting against suspected collaborators, gathering intelligence on potential targets, procuring weapons, and carrying out military attacks.
Hamas is particularly popular among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, though it also has a following in the West Bank, and to a lesser extent in other Middle Eastern countries. Its popularity stems in part from its welfare wing providing social services to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Such services are not generally provided by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli scholar Reuven Paz estimates that 90% of Hamas activities revolve around “social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities.” Social services include running relief programs and funding schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues.
In particular, Hamas funded health services where people could receive free or inexpensive medical treatment. Hamas greatly contributed to the health sector, and facilitated hospital and physician services in the Palestinian territory. On the other hand, Hamas’s use of hospitals is sometimes criticised as purportedly serving the promotion of violence against Israel. Charities affiliated with Hamas are known to financially support families of those who have been killed or imprisoned while carrying out militant actions or supporting such actions. Families typically receive a one time grant of $500 to $5,000, and those whose homes have been destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces have their rent paid for temporary housing. Families of militants not affiliated with Hamas sometimes receive less.
Hamas has funded education and built Islamic charities, libraries, mosques and education centers for women. They also built nurseries, kindergartens and supervised religious schools that provide free meals to children. When children attend their schools and mosques, parents are required to sign oaths of allegiance. Refugees, as well as those left without homes, are able to claim financial and technical assistance from Hamas.
The work of Hamas in these fields supplements that provided by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). Hamas is also well regarded by Palestinians for its efficiency and perceived lack of corruption compared to Fatah. Since the 2008–2009 Israeli military operation in Gaza, Palestinian public opinion polls have shown Hamas steadily increasing in popularity with 52% support compared to 13% for Fatah. All public opinion surveys conducted recently have supported this trend.
Despite building materials needing to be smuggled into the territory, luxury beach resorts and tourist facilities operated by the interior ministry have been constructed by Hamas government linked charities which include gardens, playgrounds, football fields, a zoo and restaurants aimed to provide employment and low cost entertainment for citizens. Some Palestinians have complained about the admission fee, criticizing Hamas for charging them to use “government-owned” property.