What is Hamas & Why it attacks Israel?
Palestinian Hamas militants protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. (Photo: Reuters)

What is Hamas?

Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) is a militant Palestinian nationalist and Islamist movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is dedicated to the establishment of an independent Islamic state in historical Palestine, said Britannica.

Hamas was founded in the 1980s and has been opposed to the late Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) since its inception. There are claims the Israeli government helped finance Hamas in its early days to build up a counterweight to the PLO — though all actors in question deny Israel played any role in establishing the organization. From its foundation, Hamas rejected negotiations that would cede any land. Unlike the PLO, Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Its emblem depicts the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the outline of the territory of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank as a single Palestinian state.

How was Hamas formed?

From the late 1970s, activists connected with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood established a network of charities, clinics, and schools and became active in the territories (the Gaza Strip and West Bank) occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. In Gaza, they were active in many mosques, while their activities in the West Bank generally were limited to the universities.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in these areas were generally nonviolent, but a number of small groups in the occupied territories began to call for jihad, or holy war, against Israel. In December 1987, at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, Hamas (which also is an Arabic word meaning “zeal”) was established by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious factions of the PLO, and the new organization quickly acquired a broad following. In its 1988 charter, Hamas maintained that Palestine is an Islamic homeland that can never be surrendered to non-Muslims and that waging holy war to wrest control of Palestine from Israel is a religious duty for Palestinian Muslims. This position brought it into conflict with the PLO, which in 1988 recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas soon began to act independently of other Palestinian organizations, generating animosity between the group and its secular nationalist counterparts. Increasingly violent Hamas attacks on civilian and military targets impelled Israel to arrest a number of Hamas leaders in 1989, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder. In the years that followed, Hamas underwent a reorganization to reinforce its command structure and locate key leaders out of Israel’s reach. A political bureau responsible for the organization’s international relations and fund-raising was formed in Amman, Jordan, electing Khaled Meshaal as its head in 1996, and the group’s armed wing was reconstituted as the ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām Forces.

What is Hamas & Why it attacks Israel?
Rockets are launched towards Israel from Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Photo: AFP)

What is "intifada"?

Intifada means either of two popular uprisings of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip aimed at ending Israel’s occupation of those territories and creating an independent Palestinian state. The first intifada began in December 1987 and ended in September 1993 with the signing of the first Oslo Accords, which provided a framework for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The second intifada, sometimes called the Al-Aqṣā intifada, began in September 2000. Although no single event signaled its end, most analysts agree that it had run its course by late 2005. The two uprisings resulted in the death of more than 5,000 Palestinians and some 1,400 Israelis.

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Who supports Hamas?

Qatar is Hamas's most important financial backer and foreign ally. Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was the first state leader to visit the Hamas government in 2012. So far, the emirate has transferred €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) to Hamas. Israel, meanwhile, hopes Qatar will join the US-brokered Abraham Accords and establish diplomatic relations with it, as a number of Arab states already have done, according to DW.

Hamas is also supported by Turkey. In talks just prior to Hamas launching rocket attacks against Israel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed political backing for its leader Ismail Haniyeh. The organization is also supported by a range of non-state initiatives and foundations, some of which are based in Germany. According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, donations to Hamas from Germany-based groups are increasing.

Palestinian militants have managed to amass the bulk of their arsenals through a creative and relatively sophisticated manufacturing capability inside the Gaza Strip itself. According to the New York Times, Hamas, aided by Iranian know-how, "repurpose plumbing pipes scavenged from abandoned Israeli settlements and components culled from dud Israeli bombs" to make their own. Some missiles are also believed to have been smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Experts say estimating the stockpile of Hamas' missiles would be impossible. However, the Times reports that Israeli intelligence estimates Hamas and other military groups have "about 30,000 rockets and mortar projectiles" stashed in Gaza.

What is Hamas & Why it attacks Israel?
Palestinians inspect their destroyed houses following overnight Israeli airstrikes in the town of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Friday, May 14, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

What is the situation in the Gaza Strip?

Why Gaza is so important?

Gaza, sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, is just 25 miles (40 kilometers) long and six miles (10 kilometers) wide. It was part of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate before the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation when it came under Egypt’s control. Large numbers of Palestinians who fled or were driven from what is now Israel ended up in Gaza, and the refugees and their descendants now number 1.4 million, accounting for more than half of Gaza’s population.

Israel captured Gaza, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories to form their future state. The first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, erupted in Gaza in 1987 — the same year Hamas was founded — and later spread to the other occupied territories. The Oslo peace process in the 1990s established the Palestinian Authority and gave it limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank.

Hamas control over Gaza

Israel withdrew its troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005, after a second and far more violent intifada. The following year, Hamas won a landslide victory in Palestinian elections. That triggered a power struggle with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, culminating in a week of clashes in 2007 that left Hamas in control of Gaza. Hamas has done little in the way of imposing Islamic law on Gaza, which was already very conservative. But it has shown no tolerance for dissent, arresting political opponents and violently suppressing rare protests against its rule. The militant group has remained firmly in power through three wars and a 14-year blockade.

The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, still struggling following the cutoff of Iranian aid, was placed under even greater financial strain in 2013 when the administration of Egyptian Pres. Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown and replaced by a military-led interim government hostile to Hamas. The new administration heavily restricted crossings at the border between Gaza and Egypt and shut down most of the smuggling tunnels that had been a major source of tax revenue for Hamas as well as a primary means of supplying a wide variety of goods to the Gaza Strip. By late 2013 Hamas was struggling to pay the wages of public sector employees in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas often fires rockets at Israel from within residential areas and operates command posts in apartment blocks. The practice effectively uses civilians as human shields. Hamas has been secretly digging underground tunnels to smuggle arms into the enclave, chiefly from Egypt. The Egyptian government, however, has been clamping down on this activity.

Hamas' conflict with Israel

Hamas, the Palestinian militant group aimed to be a resistance to what they see as Israel's occupation of three territories that Palestinians want to form their future state: Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Hamas gained control of Gaza by first winning elections in 2006 and then through clashes with the Palestine Authority. After its takeover of the coastal strip, Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade. Israel says it's needed to keep Hamas and other militant groups from importing arms. Rights groups say a blockade is a form of collective punishment. After Hamas launched two Palestinian intifadas or uprisings, Israel withdrew its troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2015.

Hamas, which still rules Gaza, is now calling for a new intifada. Gaza militants have fired rockets and balloons with incendiary devices attached to them in support of the protesters as an informal cease-fire with Israel has started to fray. Israel retaliated with hundreds of Israeli strikes from sea, land, and air. It's the fourth round of major conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2008, with the tiny enclave's more than 2 million Palestinian residents bearing the brunt of the deaths and the destruction.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars and several smaller battles. The worst so far was the 2014 war, which lasted for 50 days and killed some 2,200 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side.

In May 2021 tensions in Jerusalem boiled over and led to the greatest escalation of violence since 2014. After clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters left hundreds injured, Hamas launched rockets into Jerusalem and southern and central Israel, prompting airstrikes from Israel in response. Israel's airstrikes and incursions into Gaza have left vast swaths of destruction, with entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and thousands forced to shelter in U.N. schools and other facilities. Israel says it makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using Gazans as human shields.

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