WHAT IS HAMAS?

by Dec 8, 2023Amandla 90/91, International

HAMAS HAS BEEN DEMONISED since its attacks on October 7th 2023, leading to the death of 1,200 Israelis. Where did this party come from and how did it develop?

Origins and Development

Hamas, the Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”, was officially established in December 1987, at the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada. Its roots however go back to two organisations: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which had been active in the Gaza Strip since the 1940s, and the al-Mujamma al-Islami association, founded by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in 1973 in Gaza, and legalised by the Israeli occupied military administration in 1979. Al-Mujamma al-Islami was established and acted as a front organisation for MB’s activities in Gaza.

The Israeli occupation authorities initially encouraged the development of al-Mujamma al-Islami structures throughout the Gaza Strip, particularly social institutions and political activities. The aim was naturally to weaken the nationalist and left-wing camp, by encouraging the Islamic alternative. This is because the MB had decided to adopt a stance of non-confrontation towards the Israeli occupying forces and to focus on the islamisation of society first. This choice of non-armed confrontation with the Israeli occupier was contested within Hamas in the early 1980s and a new political entity, Islamic Jihad, led in Gaza by Fathi Shikaki, was created from this division.

Hamas’ development was also stimulated by two major regional events. The oil boom after 1973 enabled the Gulf monarchies to increase investment in Islamic fundamentalist movements, including al-Mujamma Islami. And the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 promoted the Islamic fundamentalist political orientation.

Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) also benefited from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO’s) major setbacks. These started in Jordan in 1970 with Black September and the Jordanian regime’s violent repression of Palestinian forces, which led to their transfer to Lebanon. Following the expulsion of PLO forces from Beirut to Tunis in 1982, the Palestinian national movement was further weakened. Its leadership, strategy and political programme were increasingly called into question. This was in addition to the growing focus of the Fatah-led PLO on seeking a political and diplomatic solution rather than armed resistance.

By contrast, Hamas leadership supported armed resistance. Hamas played a role in the first and second intifadas (1987-1993 and 2000-2005), while maintaining a strong rhetorical stance against the Oslo Peace Agreement between the PLO and Israel. This was increasingly and widely seen as a complete capitulation of the PLO to Israel’s demands.  

Within this framework, Hamas increasingly gained popularity in the Palestinian streets in the OPT. At the same time, the PA was increasingly criticised because of its failure to achieve any Palestinian national objectives in the face of continuous Israeli occupation and colonisation, while Ramallah was accused of corruption and clientelist practices. And the PA’s security collaboration with Israel was also widely denounced within the Palestinian population and society.

Meanwhile, Hamas slowly transformed, from being a party which, in the 1990s, refused any participation in the institutions inherited from the Oslo Agreement, to political accommodation with those institutions. In the Palestinian legislative election of January 2006, running as the “List of Change and Reform”, Hamas won a majority of seats, obtaining 42.9 percent of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats.

The international community and Israel responded by boycotting and embargoing the Hamas-led government and suspending all foreign aid to the OPT. Tensions between Hamas and Fatah escalated after the Hamas coup that ousted Fatah from Gaza in June 2007. The West Bank and Gaza Strip remain under the authority of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively.

Political programmes

Hamas played a role in the first and second intifadas (1987-1993 and 2000-2005), while maintaining a strong rhetorical stance against the Oslo Peace Agreement between the PLO and Israel.

Hamas adopted its first Charter on August 18, 1988. It acknowledged its affiliation with the MB. It stated that it “considers the land of Palestine an Islamic waqf for all generations of Muslims until the day of resurrection”. On the PLO, it said that: “Our homeland is one, our misfortune is one, our destiny is one and our enemy is common”. Hamas’ opposition to the PLO has always been essentially political, not religious. The text of the first Charter had however anti-Semitic overtones, with a reference to the Protocol of the Elders of Zion (a forgery created by the Tsarist police at the beginning of the 20th century), as well as a denunciation of the “conspiracies” of the Masonic lodges, the Rotary and Lyons clubs.

The latest Hamas charter, published in 2017, has witnessed some major modifications, towards more moderation. It now, for instance, proposes a political programme implicitly in line with a two-state solution, while antisemitic content has been removed, and instead the struggle of the party is against Zionism. In addition to this, the new document does not mention any connection to the MB.

Military Branch

Hamas has grown considerably stronger militarily since Israel’s first ground incursion in the 2008-2009 war, thanks in part to its growing links with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, particularly through the transfer of military expertise.

Palestinians at a Hamas rally in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, in 2005. In the Palestinian legislative election of January 2006, running as the “List of Change and Reform”, Hamas won a majority of seats, obtaining 42.9 percent of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats.

Today, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, is estimated to have between 15,000 and 40,000 combat-ready fighters. According to various studies, al-Qassam Brigades has an arsenal of drones and around 30,000 rockets at its disposal. It has fired 8,500 of these since October 7, reducing the effectiveness of Israel’s “Iron Dome”. Hamas also uses numerous armed booby-traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as shells and mines. It is now manufacturing a large proportion of its own weapons, developing drones and unmanned underwater vehicles, and engaging in cyberwarfare.

Strategy and regional alliances

Hamas leaders have cultivated alliances with Qatar and Turkey in recent years, as well as with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is its main political and military supporter.

Hamas has been witnessing with growing concern the conclusion of the US-brokered Abraham Accords in the summer of 2020, and further normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states, not to mention the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. This context has only strengthened Hamas’ crucial alliance with Iran and therefore Hezbollah. Its relations with Teheran have continued to provide military assistance, including weapons and training, in addition to important financial support.

The leadership changes within Hamas’ political movement have also had an impact. The relationship has certainly been maintained on a political and military level over the last decade despite disagreements on the Syrian uprising. But the replacement of Khaled Meshaal with Ismael Haniya as Hamas’ leader in 2017, and other leadership changes in the military wing, have facilitated closer relations between Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Hamas officials multiplied their visits to Teheran to meet with the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, while repeatedly praising Iran’s assistance in the media. They have declared on several occasions that they have succeeded in significantly developing their military capabilities because Iran had provided them with a lot of money, equipment and expertise.

The renewed and deepened relations with Iran have not come without criticism in the Gaza Strip and even among Hamas’ popular bases, however. The assassination of General Soleimani by a US strike in Baghdad in 2020 was heavily condemned by Hamas. But a picture of him, posted on a billboard in Gaza City, was torn down just days before the first anniversary of his death. The instigator of the action, Majdi al-Maghribi, accused him of being a criminal. Several other Soleimani banners were also taken down and vandalised, with one video showing an individual describing him as the “killer of Syrians and Iraqis”.

Similarly, the restoration of ties between the Syrian regime and Hamas in mid-2022 should be seen as Teheran’s attempt to consolidate its influence in the region and rehabilitate relations with the two allies. That said, any evolution in the relations between Syria and the Palestinian movement will not mean a return to the pre-2011 setup, in which Hamas leaders enjoyed major support from the Syrian regime. Officials in Syria will most likely lessen their public criticism of Hamas, but not restore any form of strategic military and political support, at least in the short term. Future connections between the Syrian regime and Hamas are therefore very much governed by interests connected to Iran and Hezbollah.

The wrong alliances

Hamas, just like the rest of Palestinian political parties, from Fatah to the Palestinian Left, look not to the Palestinian masses and the regional working classes and oppressed peoples as the forces to win liberation. Instead, they seek political alliances with the region’s ruling classes and their regimes to support their political and military battles against Israel.

So Hamas leaderships have cultivated alliances with monarchies in Gulf states, especially Qatar more recently, and Turkey, as well as with the Iranian regime. Rather than advance the struggle, these regimes restrict their support for the cause to areas where it advances their regional interests and betray it when it doesn’t.

Joseph Daher is a Syrian-Swiss Marxist and academic and author of Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God.

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