What is Hamas? One answer is clear: It’s the Islamist group that for a dozen years has ruled the Gaza Strip, an impoverished sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt that’s home to 1.9 million Palestinians. Beyond that, perceptions of the group differ. Some say it’s a terrorist group that poses a grave obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a gang of thugs that seized the Gaza Strip at gunpoint. Others argue it’s a true representative of Palestinians that won credibility with its grassroots charitable work and the perception that it’s less corrupt than its rival, the Fatah party. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction, while Fatah, which for a decade has governed just in the West Bank, has been Israel’s occasional partner in peace talks. 

The Situation

After showing some hints of softening, Hamas has been agitating for renewed conflict with Israel since late 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized the contested city Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In March 2018, the group and other political factions began a campaign of protests along the Gaza border that grew into violent confrontations with Israeli forces. In March 2019, two separate rocket attacks from Gaza on central Israel, which Palestinian groups said were accidental, elicited a strong Israeli response. Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which is charged with administering the Gaza Strip and West Bank under various agreements with Israel, have been engaged in intermittent talks for Hamas to cede governance of Gaza. But the negotiations have failed amid mutual recriminations and Hamas’s refusal to give up its weapons. In mid-2017, Hamas released a manifesto in which, for the first time, it accepted Fatah’s goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel next door and suggests such a state would be an interim step toward taking over Israel. And it continues to embrace armed struggle.

The Background

Hamas is a spinoff of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious, social and political movement. The organization was founded in 1987 amid the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation and later gained notoriety for a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis. It won popularity by establishing a network of charities that address poverty as well as health-care and educational needs. Its campaign against corruption in the Palestinian Authority led to its surprise victory in a 2006 election. The year before, Israeli forces had withdrawn from Gaza while maintaining control, with Egypt, over its borders and continuing to patrol in the West Bank, which is of greater strategic and religious importance to Israelis. In 2007, Hamas gained control over Gaza’s government in a bloody battle with Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, has continued to serve as president of the Palestinian Authority, though his term officially expired in 2009. During the time Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip, it has had four major military confrontations with Israel. The group has received assistance from Iran and Qatar.

The Argument

Many Palestinians think Hamas’s militancy may one day compel Israel to allow their people full independence, and even lead to Israel’s demise. Others worry that Israel will never permit a Palestinian state in the face of that belligerence and that negotiations are needed instead. Some commentators argue that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would facilitate peacemaking with Israel by giving Abbas an answer to Israeli complaints that negotiations are pointless because he can’t ensure a treaty would be honored in Gaza. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which dismissed the changes to the Hamas charter as meaningless, says it won’t deal with any Palestinian government that includes the group. Efforts to make Palestinian unity governments work have failed repeatedly.

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Michael Arnold in Tel Aviv at marnold48@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net

First published Dec. 31, 2014

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