What is Hamas?
Hamas is a militant Palestinian movement, with its name serving as an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic. The group is one of the two major political parties in the Palestinian territories; its main rival is Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Fatah is seen as more secular and moderate.
Founded in 1987 during an uprising against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas was originally a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political and social movement originating in Egypt. In recent years, Hamas has distanced itself from the group.
Shortly after Hamas won elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006, a power struggle ensued between Fatah and Hamas, which resulted in Hamas fighters’ ousting all Fatah politicians from the Gaza Strip by force. Since then, no elections have been held, and Hamas maintains political control of the area.
In 2007, Israel began taking control of sea, land and air routes to Gaza, and it eventually blockaded it, saying it was necessary to prevent Hamas attacks on Israelis. The United Nations and human rights groups have condemned the blockade, which is entering its 17th year, and critics say it has allowed Hamas to fill a power vacuum there.
The U.S., the U.K., the European Union, Canada and many other countries have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization because of its attacks on Israel, which include kidnapping civilians, conducting suicide bombings and firing rocket salvos into Israeli cities.
After Hamas killed 900 Israelis and took roughly 150 civilians and soldiers hostage Saturday, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany and Italy said in a joint statement: “All of us recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. But make no mistake: Hamas does not represent those aspirations, and it offers nothing for the Palestinian people other than more terror and bloodshed.”
Other countries, including New Zealand, deem only Hamas’ military wing, which is called the Qassam Brigades, to be a terrorist group. The U.N. has not designated any part of the organization as a terrorist group. In addition to its militant activity, Hamas provides social services for people in Gaza, such as education and medical care.
Hamas says it is a freedom-fighting movement trying to free Palestinians from occupation and reclaim large parts of Israel. Its tactics are divisive among Palestinians and those who support establishing a Palestinian state because of its use of violence. As peace talks have failed, its attacks have grown more popular among Palestinians.
A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, found that nearly a quarter of Palestinians said movements like Hamas were “the most positive thing that has happened to the Palestinian people since 1948.” The poll reported that an even higher proportion — one-third — lamented political divisions among Palestinians, calling the internal and political split between Hamas and Fatah the most damaging development since occupation.