Hamas: The Origins And Rise Of The Radical Palestinian Movement (Part II) – Analysis


Radical attitudes

According to Hamas, it is the religious duty of Muslims to attack Jews. Compromises and agreements as a way to solve the Palestinian issue are expressly rejected and replaced by armed struggle. Hamas first used a suicide bombing in April 1993, five months before PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinians administration in the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho. On the first morning after the agreement was signed, a Hamas bomber tried to blow up a police station in Gaza. This was followed by three more suicide attacks. In the fifth attack in October 1993, an attack was carried out on the headquarters of the Israeli army in the West Bank.

Since its inception, Hamas has expressly rejected negotiations that would cede any piece of Palestinian land to the Jews. Hamas leaders have unequivocally condemned the Oslo I (1993) and Oslo II (1995) peace accords including the mutual recognition of the PLO and Israel. Together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, they stepped up their terror campaign against Israel using suicide bombers to sabotage the achievement of a peace agreement. The PLO and Israel responded with harsh security measures. (For Part I click here)

The terrorism of Hamas has shocked not only Israelis but the whole world. Hamas wanted to kill as many civilians as possible. For Hamas, the age, gender and other characteristics of the victims did not matter because, in its view, every Jewish resident in Palestine is a legitimate military target because he is a Zionist. Due to deliberate suicide bombings and other attacks on civilian targets, Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization by the US in 1997, and many other countries soon followed suit, including the EU, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. However, large a number of influential countries do not consider Hamas a terrorist organization such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Egypt. Many important countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Turkey consider the struggle of Hamas as legitimate and legal and support it.

The second intifada

After the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, and the provocative visit of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September, there was an increase in violence that became known as the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada. It lasted until February 2005. This conflict marked a level of violence unprecedented in the First Intifada.

Hamas activists further intensified their attacks on Israelis and participated in numerous suicide attacks in Israel itself. In March 2002 alone, suicide bombers killed around 130 Jews. Along with Hamas, violence against Israel has been joined by other radical Palestinian groups such as PIJ and Tanzim, a militant faction of Fatah. Israel responded with its own force. The battles for Jenin and Bethlehem claimed hundreds of lives. Israeli forces killed Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, in 2004, and 200,000 people attended his funeral.

Israel’s failed strategy of initial support for Hamas

In recent decades, it has become a popular narrative that the Americans, through helping the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the USSR, created an organization that transformed into Al-Qaeda. Some analysts interpret Israel’s attitude towards Hamas in a similar way. They suggest that the Israeli right in the 1980s and 1990s had an interest in supporting Hamas.

Israel’s right-wing establishment initially reckoned that it would benefit if Hamas gained popularity. The leadership of Hamas promised to sabotage the peace agreement from Oslo in 1995, which was signed by the left-wing Israeli government with the PLO, which was also in the interest of the Israeli right, which did not want a two-state solution. A spate of suicide bombings by Hamas activists after the Oslo accords strengthened the position of the right in Israeli politics, leading to the rise of leaders like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, staunch enemies of the peace deal and the two-state solution. However, the Israelis were hoping for the outbreak of a Palestinian civil war in the occupied territories, and not for Hamas to become the striking force of the Palestinian resistance that would take over power in the Gaza Strip.

The takeover of power in the Gaza Strip

In the years following the Second Intifada, Hamas began to change its attitudes toward the peace process. In early 2005, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a cessation of hostilities as Israel prepared to withdraw from some Palestinian territories.

After lengthy negotiations, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire although occasional violence continued. Later that year, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip as a sign of goodwill within the peace process. Then all the settler Jewish settlements were dismantled. Jews have lived in that area since 1967 in several settlements united under the common name of Gush Katif. About 9 to 10 thousand settlers lived there. They were guarded by thousands of Israeli soldiers. There were constant clashes between Israelis and Palestinians because the Palestinians wanted to demolish Israeli settlements.

Although the situation looked promising in the first months after the Israeli withdrawal, things soon took a turn for the worse. After the withdrawal from Gaza, the Israelis expected a counter-concession from the Palestinian side, but it did not happen. Hamas ideologues interpreted Israel’s withdrawal as a result of its bloody terrorist actions. After more than a decade of rejecting the core principles of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas ran in the 2006 parliamentary elections for the Palestinian National Council and won a surprise victory that took everyone by surprise. Hamas and Fatah formed a coalition government with Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as prime minister. There were indications that Hamas would accept the agreements between Israel and the PLO and stop being radical. However, future events will reveal a completely different scenario.

Conflicts between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip intensified, prompting Palestinian President Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led coalition government and declare a state of emergency in June 2007. That month, after winning the Gaza civil war, Hamas continued to control the area, while the Fatah-led emergency cabinet continued to control the West Bank. Such a situation has remained to this day and the Palestinian territories have remained politically divided.

Hamas introduced a one-party dictatorship in the Gaza Strip, strict Sharia laws that were directed against all democratic freedoms, and women, Palestinian Christians and various minorities. Furthermore, Hamas suppresses media freedom, political opposition, and non-governmental organizations, allowing it to rule autocratically. Elections have never been held since the violent takeover of power in 2007, which shows that Hamas leaders fear that they could lose them, which would show that they do not have the support of the majority of the Palestinian population. Egypt and Israel then largely closed their borders with the Gaza Strip, restricting the movement of goods and people. To this day, the two countries largely maintain the blockade of Gaza, forcing more than two million Palestinians to rely on international aid.

Changing international circumstances

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 strained Hamas’s relations with the governments of Syria and Iran, its main sponsors, as Mashal and other Hamas leaders in Damascus avoided expressing support for the Assad government in quelling the uprising. The following 2012, when it became clear that they would not support Assad, the Hamas leadership was forced to move to Doha and to a lesser extent to Egypt. Mashal then publicly announced that Hamas supports the opposition in Syria – radical Sunni Islamists. Because of this move, Iranian support to Hamas (according to some estimates exceeded 200 million dollars a year) was significantly reduced.

The Hamas administration in Gaza found itself in a difficult situation after the reduction of Iranian aid, and more difficult days followed in 2013 when Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted and replaced by a government led by a military junta hostile to Hamas. The new Egyptian government tightly controlled the border crossings with the Gaza Strip and closed most of the smuggling tunnels that were the main source of income for Hamas and the primary means of supplying the population there with basic necessities.

In April 2014, Hamas agreed with Fatah to form a new Palestinian government composed exclusively of non-party ministers. The new cabinet was sworn in on June 2 but could not govern the Gaza Strip because Hamas would not allow it. Unable to take over the administration, the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah cut funding to Gaza and imposed sanctions in 2018. Hamas tried to mitigate the damage by taxing the population, but the move was unpopular and led to frequent protests as the population was already impoverished. International humanitarian aid and the easing of the blockade by Israel brought some relief to the population.

Meanwhile, changes in the leadership of Hamas made it possible to get closer to Iran again. Yahya Sinwar, a senior official within the group’s armed wing who became the leader in Gaza in 2017, has been an advocate of improving relations with Iran. Ismail Haniyeh, who replaced Mashal as politburo chairman that same year, improved diplomatic relations and began making appearances in Iran, including the funeral of Qassem Soleimani in 2020 and the inauguration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021.

Movement functioning

Hamas is headed by a politburo operating in exile. Local committees manage basic issues in Gaza and the West Bank. At the time of writing this article, at the start of November, Hamas is still headed by Ismail Haniyeh, who has been operating from Doha, Qatar since 2020. Apart from Qatar, Hamas officials are most active in Turkey, which provides them with refuge. Day-to-day operations in Gaza are overseen by Yahya Sinwar, who previously headed Hamas’s military wing and served 22 years in an Israeli prison for planning the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers. He was among more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners freed in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

As of June 2021, the de facto Prime Minister of Gaza is Essam al-Da’alis. Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa command Hamas’s military wing. By the way, Israeli forces killed the founder of the military wing of Hamas, Salah Shehadeh, in an airstrike in 2002, along with 15 civilians. Saleh al-Arouri lives in Lebanon and is the deputy chairman of the Politburo and heads the West Bank branch of the movement since the 2021 internal elections.

Funding the movement

Given that it is designated as a terrorist organization by a large part of the world, Hamas is cut off from the official humanitarian aid that international organizations provide to the PLO in the West Bank. Historically, Palestinian expatriates and private Arab donors covered much of the movement’s funding.

In addition, some Islamic charities in the West have directed money to humanitarian organizations that cooperate with Hamas. Foreign aid mainly arrives in Gaza from Qatar, the West Bank and UN agencies. In 2018, Egypt began allowing some commercial goods to enter Gaza through the Salah al-Din border crossing. As of 2021, Hamas reportedly collected more than $12 million a month from taxes on Egyptian goods imported into Gaza.

Today, Iran is one of Hamas’s biggest donors of money and weapons. The Iranians also train Hamas militants. Iran gives about $100 million a year to Hamas and other Palestinian groups designated by the US as terrorists. Tehran was quick to praise Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 this year and pledged its continued support. Qatar is a very generous funder of Hamas, averaging $120 million a year. Turkey, Malaysia, Algeria and Kuwait also provide financial, military and political support to Hamas.

Tactical change of rhetoric

In what analysts called an attempt to beautify its image, Hamas unveiled a new document in 2017. In it, senior leaders expressed their willingness to support a de facto two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. They accept a sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along the pre-1967 “Green Line” with refugees returning to their homes.

However, even in that document, Hamas refuses to recognize Israel as an independent and sovereign state. The document calls for “resisting the occupation by all methods and means”. Hardliners within the movement remained sharp in their rhetoric. Months after one such hardliner, Yahya Sinwar, became the leader of Hamas in Gaza in 2017, he told a youth roundtable: “The time when Hamas discussed recognizing Israel is over. Now the discussion is about when we will wipe out Israel.”

Conflicts with Israel

After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel declared the Gaza Strip an enemy entity and approved a series of sanctions that included electricity, water, severely restricted imports and border closures. Hamas attacks on Israel with rockets and mortars continued, as did Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

At the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, there was a clash between Israel and Hamas, and similar war conflicts took place every few years: November 2012, summer 2014, a few months in 2018 and in May 2021. Over the years, Hamas militants have sent incendiary balloons towards Israel, which sometimes caused fires. The group also raided Israeli territory, killing and kidnapping soldiers and civilians.

A powerful military arsenal

This October, the movement’s military leader, Mohammed Deif, said that Operation Al-Aqsa Storm was undertaken because of Israel’s long-term blockade of Gaza, the occupation of Palestinian lands and crimes against Muslims, including the desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Tehran provided much of Hamas’s military arsenal, but the movement itself gained the ability to build its own rockets after training the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Israel estimated that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza have about 30,000 rockets and mortars in their arsenal. There are also bombs, drones and other weapons. According to estimates, the organization has about 40,000 trained soldiers. Hamas has built a wide network of underground tunnels and bunkers under Gaza, which Israeli military planners call “metro” and some “spider’s web”. The tunnels are hundreds of kilometers long, are located at a depth of about 80 m and are used for military purposes, storage and smuggling. Tunnels and underground weapons factories are often located under schools and hospitals in densely populated areas, making Gaza a bunker for Hamas.


Although the Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was supposed to bring peace and stability to that part of the future Palestinian state, it did not happen. Why? Because the ruler of life and death in that area, Hamas, interpreted Israel’s withdrawal as Israel’s weakness and not as a gesture of goodwill. Instead of introducing democracy and freedom and the arrival of foreign investors, Hamas radicals introduced a one-party dictatorship and torture of all dissenters, and new conflicts with Israel began.

Although it is a 100% Palestinian area without a single Jew, prosperity did not happen because of the government that was not skilled in running a de facto state, and at the same time did not want peace but new conflicts. The worst thing is that Hamas uses innocent Palestinian civilians including children as human shields and then uses the civilian victims for propaganda purposes. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself called the Gaza Strip under Hamas the “Emirate of Darkness”.

The bad situation in Gaza is not only the responsibility of Hamas, but also Israel and Egypt, which block the area. Inefficient international community is also responsible. However, the biggest culprit for the chronically bad humanitarian situation is undoubtedly Hamas. Its militants are diverting international aid to build their own military infrastructure and thus hindering economic development, which contributes to the deepening of the humanitarian crisis. Also, instead of communal services, Hamas ideologues invest large financial resources in the education system aiming at the radical indoctrination of children and youth.

The biggest victims of Hamas are not Israelis but Arabs, Muslims and Christians alike. A prerequisite for a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian issue is the removal of Hamas from power in Gaza and the return of the legal and legitimate institutions of the Palestinian Authority until new elections. How Hamas would fare in the elections is highly questionable, and some polls say that it would even win! Such an outcome would be a disaster and a path to the abyss for the Palestinians.

In no case should the Islamist radicals be allowed to lead the Palestinian people, because they can only lead them into conflicts with Israel in which the Palestinians always lose. Equally, radicals on the Israeli side like Prime Minister Netanyahu and others should be removed from power in order for the peace process to make sense. Netanyahu, with a short break, has been in power in Israel since the spring of 2009 until today. It is striking that during that period there was no significant progress in the peace process. In order to achieve sustainable peace, security and prosperity of the two nations, it is necessary for both sides of the negotiating table to have professional, sober and rational negotiators who strive for realistic goals.​

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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