Palestinian supporters of the Islamist Hamas movement take part in a demonstration in Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip. © Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/Press Association Images

Ten things you should know about Hamas

What is it, what does it want, and what will it achieve?
August 20, 2014

Who set up Hamas and what are its core principles?

Hamas is an armed Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was created in 1987 by the Gaza-based Islamist cleric Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Its full name is the Islamic Resistance Movement, and its core principles are armed resistance to Israel and “Islam is the solution.” This hardline message fusing nationalism and religious conservatism was a deliberate attempt to establish it as a long-term Islamist and nationalist challenge to the more secular Palestinian movements within the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

How did it rise to prominence?

It was born during the opening days of the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israel, and successfully built upon the street anger and protests of that time. Its implacable Islamist and anti-Israel rhetoric appealed to many socially conservative Palestinians and to refugees whose families were driven out of their homes in what is now Israel. Over decades Hamas slowly built its power base in Gaza. It was the surprise victor in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections—capitalising on criticism of corruption and inefficiency in President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority—and seized military control of Gaza in 2007. However, its international isolation ever since then has led to it being weakened, and to successive conflicts with Israel.

Who runs Hamas?

Hamas is a movement with three wings: political, military and social. It has a political bureau abroad whose most prominent members in recent years have been Khaled Meshaal and Moussa Abu Marzouq. In 2006, Yassin’s former aide Ismail Haniya became the Palestinian prime minister, after winning elections. However Hamas’s writ never really extended beyond Gaza. Its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, is led by Mohammed Deif, a shadowy figure from the city of Khan Younis who has long been in hiding, fearing capture or assassination by Israeli forces. The military wing claims some operational autonomy from Hamas’s other shuras, or ruling councils, but this is a distinction scorned by much of the rest of the world, which regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Who bankrolls it?

Qatar and Turkey are thought to be its main international backers. But in the past it has taken money, donations, weapons and other forms of support from other Arab and Muslim countries who are either keen to be seen supporting the Palestinian cause or to use Hamas as a proxy. For years Iran provided money, weapons and training for Hamas’s armed wing. Hamas fighters on the ground did not even bother to deny this. Over the years it has also had support from a wide network of organisations and individuals around the world who contribute donations, especially to its grassroots social welfare organisations in Gaza. These groups were key to Hamas’s rise to power because they won “hearts and minds.”

Why does it run only Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank?

Gaza is Hamas’s heartland. It also has many supporters in the West Bank and in Palestinian refugee camps in the region. But the West Bank has long been more socially progressive than Gaza, inclining many toward Hamas’s more secular rivals such as Fatah and leftist parties. Israel also has many soldiers in military bases and Israeli settlements all over the West Bank, making it very difficult for Hamas to operate openly. Its leaders and operatives there are regularly arrested. However, Israel pulled its soldiers out of Gaza in 2005, deploying them around the border. This leaves Hamas more freedom to operate within Gaza than in the West Bank.

Who are Hamas’s international allies?

One of Hamas’s strongest international supporters was the short-lived regime of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a fellow member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas thrived during Morsi’s time in office, enjoying a rare period of freedom to move goods, money and weapons into Gaza. However, the 2013 coup in Cairo replaced Hamas’s ally with an implacable opponent, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who banned the Brotherhood and accused it of conspiring with Hamas to cause unrest in Egypt. With Egypt and Israel controlling all access to Gaza by land, sea and air, Hamas has been isolated ever since. It is still supported by Qatar and Turkey, the latter’s ruling Justice and Development Party being a model for the “change and reform” platform under which Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. For years Hamas had substantial military and financial support from Iran until Hamas took sides in Syria’s civil war, choosing to support its fellow Muslim Brotherhood Islamists against Iran’s ally President Bashar al-Assad. But friendships can be reforged as quickly as they can be lost amid the Middle East’s ever-shifting matrix of alliances and interests.

What are support levels for Hamas among Gazans and Palestinians?

It is impossible to say with certainty how Hamas will emerge from the latest bloodshed. Certainly it will be the target of anger among Gazans who lost relatives, homes, schools and livelihoods in the Israeli campaign. However Hamas has long calculated that if their own people are being killed in large numbers, Palestinians will mostly blame Israel. In the West Bank, President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has looked increasingly weak in recent years because of its failure to prevent continued Israeli settlement building, and the dismal prospect of a moribund peace process. If Hamas succeeds in easing the Israeli and Egyptian closures on Gaza, it will claim this as a triumph for its message of arms over Israeli occupation. But if Gaza remains isolated and shattered, it may be weakened.

Has Hamas ever negotiated with Israel?

Hamas and Israel have reached fragile ceasefires and agreements in the past, through intermediaries in Cairo and elsewhere. But neither side is likely to sit down publicly with the other, especially now.

What does Hamas want now?

Its main priority is to reopen Gaza’s southern gate at Rafah into Egypt. This is the lifeline through which people, goods, construction materials and money can flow. It has also demanded that Israel stop military strikes on Gaza, and ease its own long-standing restrictions on movement of people and goods through Israel-Gaza border crossings. Hamas also wants the release of prisoners, and for government officials in Gaza to be paid their salaries by the reconciliation Palestinian government, which was finally agreed by Hamas and Fatah in June after years of divided rule, but which was quickly overtaken by the latest strife. But of all these, the most important is opening Gaza’s lifeline to Egypt. Israel is likely to demand that all Palestinian factions in Gaza end hostilities against Israel, especially rocket attacks. And the exposure of Hamas’s extensive tunnel network is certain to strengthen Israel’s determination to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.

Will it get what it wants?

The international community is keen to alleviate civilian suffering in Gaza, so there will be pressure on Gaza’s neighbours to ease restrictions on the movement of people and goods. However, Israel has no desire to see Hamas strengthened—certainly not if Hamas can claim that it won concessions through force of arms. Egypt also remains hostile to Hamas, as do many regional Arab governments. They fear the threat of Islamist groups, but do not want to risk being branded stooges of Israel by inflicting pain on fellow Arabs. The negotiations will be difficult, the outcomes precarious, and the chance of lasting solutions very low.