Hamas was born along with the First Intifada. The word “Hamas,” which is an acronym for the Arabic phrase “Islamic Resistance Movement,” means enthusiasm or zeal, and correctly describes the attitude with which its members carry out its main mission—namely, the destruction of Israel.
Hamas began as an offshoot of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, and was created in 1987, during the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The founding sheikh was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In 1992, Hamas’ military branch was founded, named Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, named after a Palestinian nationalist. Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas bomb-maker known as the “Engineer” who was killed by the Shin Bet in 1996 has also taken on venerated status in Hamas lore, and members often refer to themselves as “Students of Ayyash.”
Hamas’ fundamental beliefs are simple. They believe in the absolute authority of Islam in all aspects of life, and that resisting the “enemy” (i.e. Israel) is a religious duty required of all Muslims. Hamas’ charter states that their goal is to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Hamas does not recognize Israel, and believes that all of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rightfully belongs to the Palestinian people. While Hamas has offered that it will “settle” for the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace with Israel, many Israelis are skeptical that any true peace can be achieved with Hamas. In fact, Hamas never talks of “peace,” but only of a “hudna”—a temporary truce—leading many in Israel to believe that should their government accept such an offer, it would only be a matter of time before Hamas set out to realize its original goal and occupy all of Israel.
Hamas believes, based on religious writings, that the land of Israel belongs to them, and as the rightful occupiers, they are legitimate in their attacks on the Israeli “occupiers.” They believe the land is non-negotiable, and Hamas’ charter calls loudly and clearly for the destruction of the Israeli state and an establishment of an Islamist government in its place. Hamas has claimed over and over that there can be no peaceful negotiations with Israel, only jihad (“holy war”). Hamas has said that their beliefs are not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist, but a number of their statements, such as denial of the Holocaust, smacks of the contrary.
Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings; the first one took place in April, 1993, when two Israeli buses were attacked in front of a coffee shop. As many as 500 people may have been killed by Hamas’ suicide bombings over the years, including those killed in the devastating 2002 Passover attacks. Hamas’ arsenal also includes rocket fire, small-arms fire, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), in addition to kidnapping soldiers. Hamas is responsible for the capture and holding of now-famous Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which occurred in 2006; Shalit’s family is still awaiting his return home. Hamas has also been accused of militarizing Palestinian children, including establishing special training camps for the purposes of indoctrination of children as young as kindergarten age.
Hamas receives its funding largely from Saudi Arabia and Iran, with other monies coming in from Muslim charities around the world. A 2003 US intelligence report estimated that Hamas had an annual budget of $50 million. A charitable foundation in the United States, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, was accused of funding Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US; five leaders of the foundation were convicted.
Within Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas enjoys a high level of popularity. Since its formation, Hamas has not only focused on terrorist activities, but has simultaneously worked on improving the lives of the Palestinian citizens. Hamas runs or funds many social welfare activities, such soup kitchens, education programs, healthcare clinics, orphanages, and sports leagues. While their actions undoubtedly help the Palestinians, many also view the humanitarian activities as propaganda and an opportunity for recruitment. The same money funds both the social welfare arm and the terrorism arm.
The wealth of services offered to the residents is one reason for Hamas’ overwhelming victory in the 2006 elections. Hamas, a religious movement, began to break with the PLO/Fatah movement, the latter of which became more moderate, even recognizing Israel’s right to exist. After Hamas won 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats in the elections, the rivalry and tensions between Hamas and Fatah grew, until they erupted in violence. A civil war broke out, and Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, ousting any Fatah leaders. Hamas’ rule in Gaza was devastating for Israeli towns along its border, and the increase in shootings and rocket attacks eventually led to the Israeli military operation Cast Lead, in December 2008.