What is Hamas, the organization that has been clashing with Israel for over 30 years

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Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawwama al-Islamiyya, which means Islamic Resistance Movement. But the word Hamas itself, beyond the acronym, in Arabic means “enthusiasm”. The movement is inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and its foundation dates back to 14 December 1987 at the hands of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed in 2004 by an Israeli air attack. Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic religious organization of a paramilitary and political nature, considered a terrorist group by Israel and Western countries. Hamas’ declared project is to force the Jewish State to withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and to establish an Islamic State in all of historic Palestine, the one delimited by the pre-1948 borders. Hamas’ program also includes the goal of destroying Israel. The decades-long tension flared up again on October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched a vast offensive with thousands of missiles, incursions by land, sea and air. Armed commandos attacked kibbutzim and shot civilians, as well as taking hostages. Israel has launched a counteroffensive and says it is “at war”.

Origins and founding of Hamas

In the 1970s, Sheikh Yassin founded the Palestinian section of the Muslim Brotherhood, born in the 1920s in Egypt. It is the period in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes power in Iran and creates an Islamic theocracy. At the same time, extremist Islamic groups arose in Palestine and began to use armed struggle to reconquer the territories occupied in 1967. Twenty years later, in 1987, with the revolt of the Arab populations in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, known as the “first Intifada” , Hamas is officially born.

The first and second intifada

Intifada in Arabic means revolt. The first spontaneous demonstrations in 1987 exploded both in Gaza and in the West Bank, then were led by the PLO, the political organization for the liberation of Palestine led by Yasser Arafat. The first intifada lasted over 5 years. In the end, the Oslo negotiations define the withdrawal of the Israelis from Gaza and the West Bank and the recognition of the PLO as an interlocutor of the Israeli government, which in turn recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces terrorism. The PNA, the Palestinian national authority, is born, chaired by Arafat. However, Hamas, with the military wing of the al-Qassam Brigades, has repeatedly attacked Israel over the last three decades. In September 2000 the second Intifada began, almost half of all the attacks carried out against Israel were carried out by Hamas militiamen and the al-Qassam brigades. In 2004 Arafat died and his successor Abu Mazen was critical of the armed revolt: he shared its political aims (the end of the Israeli occupation), but believed that the price paid was excessive. In 2005 Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister, surrendered to the Palestinian revolt and ordered the withdrawal of eight thousand settlers from Gaza.

The political-social arm and victory in the elections

Hamas, in addition to the military wing, includes a political arm and a social structure (‘Dawa’) which controls, in addition to mosques, a dense network of schools, clinics and welfare associations. In 2006 he won the political elections in the Palestinian Territories and Ismail Haniyeh was appointed prime minister by the PNA. Fatah, a more moderate party that controls the West Bank, tries to put a spanner in the works of the new government and in 2007 the civil war in Gaza breaks out, with Fatah members being expelled from the Strip together with their leader Abu Mazen. So the two movements divide the two territories of Palestine. Since then, Hamas has continuously strengthened its power in the small enclave and in 2012 achieved a prestigious success by imposing a prisoner exchange on Israel: a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli corporal Ghilad Shalit. However, following the Arab Spring, its international isolation continued to grow (the rift with al-Sisi’s Egypt was particularly serious). Hence the decision, in 2014, to support a government of national reconciliation together with Fatah.

The different souls of Hamas

International isolation, the break with Egypt, the difficulties of Syria and the commitments of Iran, other important allies of Hamas, have led the movement to a series of internal divisions. Inside Hamas there are different souls. One closer to Qatar, another allied country, more moderate, less inclined towards the destruction of Israel and more inclined towards the construction of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. The other faction, called the “Iranians”, is closer to the Shiite theocracy, less oriented towards compromise. Hamas does not completely control the Strip. Furthermore, in Gaza there are several other armed militia groups, sometimes allied and sometimes hostile to Hamas. Islamic Jihad is the largest of these groups and appears to have around ten thousand affiliates.

Who considers Hamas a “terrorist organization”

In addition to Israel, Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the EU, USA, Canada and Japan. Other countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, for example, classify only its military wing as a terrorist organization.

Who finances it

Hamas was once supported economically by Saudi Arabia and Syria, but then its main partner became Iran, which every year sends millions of dollars in aid and weapons to the Gaza Strip. Tehran sees Hamas as an ally with which to fight the war against Israel. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards also give funds to Islamic Jihad, the other Palestinian organization that operates in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But how do you remember? Republic, Hamas also receives funding from Qatar and other Arab countries. And the humanitarian donations sent to Gaza by the UN, the EU and other Western nations arrive indirectly.