What Is Hamas?

Hamas Celebrate Palestinian Election Victory
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Question: What Is Hamas?

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have been without a state, but not without much of the apparatus that makes up a state--political parties, movements, militant organizations. The earliest and most enduring of post-1948 Palestinian parties is Fatah. Since 1987, however, Fatah's rival for power and influence has been Hamas. What is Hamas, precisely, and how does it compare and match up against other Palestinian parties?

Answer: Hamas is a militant, Islamist political party and social organization with its own military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. Since 2000, Hamas has been linked with more than 400 attacks, including more than 50 suicide bombings, many of them terrorist attacks directed at Israeli civilians. Hamas is considered a liberation movement by a majority of Palestinians.

While Hamas is known in the West mostly for its ultra-conservative Islamism, its militancy and attacks on Israel, "up to 90% of its resources and staff were devoted to public-service enterprises" (according to Robin Wright in Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2008). Those include "a huge network of social services, schools, clinics, welfare organizations, and women's groups."

Hamas Defined

Hamas is an Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama alIslamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement. The word Hamas also means "zeal." Ahmad Yassin created Hamas in December 1987 in Gaza as a militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative, Egypt-based Islamist movement. Hamas' charter, published in 1988, calls for the eradication of Israel and scorns peace initiatives. "The so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem," the charter states, "are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. [...] Those conferences are no more than a means to appoint the nonbelievers as arbitrators in the lands of Islam. Since when did the Unbelievers do justice to the Believers?"

Differences Between Hamas and Fatah

Unlike Fatah, Hamas rejects the idea--or the possibility--of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians. Hamas' overarching goal is one Palestinian state within which Jews would be allowed to live as they have in Arab lands throughout history. That Palestinian state, in Hamas' view, would be part of the larger Islamic caliphate. The PLO in 1993 accepted Israel's right to exist and envisions a two-state solution, with Palestinians establishing an independent state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas, Iran and Al-Qaeda

Hamas, an almost exclusively Sunni organization, is heavily funded by Iran, a Shiite theocracy. But Hamas has no ties to al-Qaeda, also a Sunni organization. Hamas is willing to participate in the political process, and indeed swept to victory in municipal and legislative elections in the Occupied Territories. Al-Qaeda belittles the political process, terming it a bargain with the "infidels"' system.

Rivalry Between Fatah and Hamas

Fatah's main rival since then has been Hamas, the militant, Islamist organization whose main power base is in Gaza. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abou Mazen, is the current Fatah leader. In January 2006, Hamas stunned Fatah and the world by winning, in a largely free and fair election, a majority in the Palestinian parliament. The vote was a rebuke to Fatah's chronic corruption and inaction. The Palestinian prime minister has since been Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader.

Rivalries between Hamas and Fatah exploded on June 9, 2007, into open conflict on the streets of Gaza. As Robin Wright wrote in Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2008), "Bands of masked fighters roamed Gaza City, waged gun battles in the streets, and executed captives on the spot. Both Hamas and Fatah reportedly hurled opponents from high-rise buildings, with gunmen hunting down wounded rivals in hospital wards to finish them off."

The battle was over in five days, with Hamas easily defeating Fatah. The two sides remained at loggerheads until March 23, 2008, when Fatah and Hamas seemed to agree to a Yemeni-brokered reconciliation. That agreement soon crumbled, however.