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Image:Hamas_Ahmad_Yassin.jpg Image:Hamas_Flag.jpg ORIGINS

Hamas first emerged in 1987, in the beginning stages of the first Intifada against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. It was an offshoot of the well-established 20th Century Egyptian Islamic group known as the Muslim Brotherhood, which had established offices in Gaza as early as the 1970s. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the powerlessness of Islamic civilization to resist colonialism is a direct result of abandoning Islam, and as a result they conclude that returning to Islam is the only proper way to resist foreign oppression. This message found a receptive audience in the Occupied Territories, where tensions in the late 1980s were reaching a boiling point after almost 2 decades of Israeli occupation. In 1987 the Intifada began, and outsiders quickly realized that it was unfolding outside the control of established Palestinian authorities like Yasser Arafat and the PLO, who were all exiled abroad. Instead, local leaders emerged to channel the outrage of the Palestinians, the most notable of whom was the charismatic cleric Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Yassin gathered around him a group of well-educated and religious young men, and together they founded Hamas, a resistance group explicitly dedicated to overthrowing the Israelis through religious struggle. Their 1988 charter publicly proclaimed their beliefs and purposes: the Palestinians must have a state over the entirety of Mandatory Palestine, this state must be religious, and as a result Israel must be destroyed.

Image:Hamas_Fighters.jpg Image:Hamas_Suicide_Bombing.jpg RESISTANCE AND SUICIDE BOMBING

In the first Intifada (1987-1990) Hamas emerged as the dominant resistance group in Gaza, though the West Bank remained loyal to Fatah, Arafat, and the PLO. In Gaza, Hamas attracted a large following by using its resources, derived from its members’ tithes, to set up a variety of public charities, most notably hospitals and schools. To this day, the vast majority of Hamas’ members only participate in these charitable wings of the organization, and have nothing whatsoever to do with violence. These charities are especially valuable to the residents of Gaza because they provide essential services which are unavailable anywhere else: due to the Israeli occupation, non-Hamas hospitals and schools are overwhelmed and understaffed. At the same time, the militant wing of Hamas was emerging as the largest resistance group in Palestine, keeping up attacks against Israelis throughout the 1990s, long after the Intifada had ended. These attacks generally involved firing homemade rockets from Gaza into surrounding Israeli settlements, which in turn usually prompted the Israelis to shell Gaza, thus continuing the vicious cycle.

In the early 1990s, in response to the assassination of several key Hamas military leaders, the militia began a deadly campaign of suicide bombing within Israel itself, especially on city buses, in restaurants, and in dance clubs. These attacks always led to serious Israeli reprisal attacks—as well as the virtual shut-down of many border stations into Israel—but the campaign was brutally effective nonetheless: Israeli civil society had been paralyzed by fear of more attacks, and Israeli reprisals had driven the populace of Gaza further into Hamas’ orbit. It was these attacks that gave Hamas its first serious international attention; most western governments labeled the movement a terrorist organization and refused to deal with it, while anti-Israeli Middle Eastern governments, most notably Syria, Iran, and some elements of Saudi Arabia (not to mention Saddam Hussein) began funding Hamas quite generously, though this money had to be delivered in roundabout ways. For their part, Hamas and its leaders were unfazed by international rebuke. In their mind every citizen in Israel was a soldier, therefore for Hamas militants every Israeli was a legitimate target.

Image:Hamas_Sharon_Riot.jpg Image:Hamas CloseUp.jpg


Throughout the 1990s Hamas’ bombing campaigns were guided by very clear goals: disrupting the “Peace Process” begun in 1993 and radicalizing both sides into an all-out war over the land of Palestine. They were successful on both counts: during the late 1990s Hamas bombings seriously undermined the authority of Yasser Arafat while also contributing (indirectly) to the election of several anti-Peace Process governments in Israel via the Likud Party, which under Benjamin Netanyahu effectively halted the Process on the Israeli side, thus helping Hamas engineer a self-fulfilling prophecy: Israel could not be negotiated with—it could only be destroyed.

Things came to a fever pitch in 2001, when upcoming Likud leader Ariel Sharon, in what many have called a shortsighted publicity stunt, visited the al-Aqsa mosque complex atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with a large armed escort; the Muslim response to seeing an enemy standing in one of their holiest places was predictable, and soon a riot erupted during which Israeli soldiers killed several Palestinian rioters. Thus began the second rebellion, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. Sharon easily won the election on a security first, peace second platform, and his Likud government proved itself every bit as ruthless as Hamas. While suicide bombings continued in Israel, Sharon began full military incursions into Gaza and the West Bank, bulldozing hundreds of houses, imprisoning thousands of Palestinians, and directly targeting Hamas leaders for assassination, including Sheikh Yassin and his close associates, who were killed by helicopter-fired missiles on the streets of Gaza. All of this violence only served to further radicalize most Palestinians and marginalize the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004 after living for years as a prisoner in his own bombed-out office complex. All the while, Sharon and Hamas continued their policies of collective retribution.

HAMAS TRIUMPHANT Image:Palestine_Second_Intifada.jpgImage:Hamas_Election.jpg

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, spent 2005 trying to mediate between the Israeli government of Sharon, then Ehud Olmert, while also reining in extremists within the Palestinian ranks, most notably Hamas. He failed on both counts, and the violence has continued on both sides. In an unusual move, Sharon decided in 2005 to unilaterally withdraw all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, theoretically as part of the Peace Process but more likely to shore up Israeli positions in the West Bank. Taking advantage of this breathing room, Hamas began exerting more direct control over Gaza in direct opposition to the Palestinian authority, and the results paid off in early 2006, when the Palestinians held their first parliamentary elections in many years: Hamas won an absolute majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and thus found itself in control of the entire Palestinian Authority, while Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah, Israel and the wider world could only look on in shock. In retrospect this was not an inconceivable development: the PA under Fatah had defined itself as an incredibly corrupt entity, unable to deliver basic services to its citizens in many situations; while much of this inefficiency can be directly attributable to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the fact that Fatah was simply a corrupt government could not be ignored: Hamas, on the other hand, had distinguished itself since its very inception as an austere, efficient organization: when Hamas promised a service, it was delivered. In the desperate days of early 2006, Palestinians wanted such an organization running their government. Within months, all western governments had cut off ties with the new government of Hamas PM Ismail Haniya, stating that the new Hamas government was a terrorist organization that could not be dealt with until it renounced the portions of its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Haniyeh and his colleagues did not respond, and the west began to withhold all aid to Palestine, which crippled the already faltering economy of the Palestinian Authority. Interestingly enough, however, throughout 2006 Hamas leaders did not publicly mention the destruction of Israel, instead focusing on internal political issues, though it must be said that Hamas leaders repeatedly denied abridging the charter in any way whatsoever. Aid trickled in from other Muslim states, but the PA was clearly in desperate straits.

The new government’s first blows with Israel came in June-July 2006, when Hamas militants abducted an Israeli soldier right outside the Gaza Strip and imprisoned him at an unknown location, offering to conduct an exchange for all women then being held in Israeli prisons. The Israelis responded by reoccupying Gaza, where they began shelling the refugee camps and trying to forcibly dismantle armed groups, a situation which continues to the present.

Perhaps more gravely for the people of the Occupied Territories, in December 2006 the tensions between Fatah and Hamas spilled over into street violence between both factions’ armed wings. Abbas was almost assassinated, along with senior members of the Hamas government. Outside observers began to speak of a brewing Palestinian civil war.


This war was narrowly averted when Saudi King Abdullah summoned Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Abbas to a conference in Mecca, where on February 8th 2007 they announced the formation of a Palestinian unity government embracing Fatah and Hamas. Hamas retains Ismail Haniya as Prime Minister, along with the majority of cabinet positions, but several key positions have been designated for Fatah, and Mahmoud Abbas remains the overall President of the Palestinian Authority. Israel refuses to acknowledge this government, as it is still led by Hamas, but western governments are beginning to unfreeze funds for the cash-strapped Authority...though the flow of this money will be tied to the future conduct of Hamas, and its ability to successfully make the jump from extremist militia to responsible political party.


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