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A History of the Hamas Movement

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Hamas means zeal. It is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawima al-Islamiyya, Islamic Resistance Movement/ It was created as the armed wing of the religious revivalist Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) in Gaza, in 1987 or 1988. The Hamas Charter is virulently anti-Semitic and uncompromising in its goal of riding Palestine of the Jews.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1946 in Gaza. The Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood  was a quiescent force  whose main goal was a reorientation of Palestinian society to religion. The Brotherhood had  relatitvely little to do with the fight against Israel or later in opposition to the occupation, though individual members were active in arms smuggling during the Israeli War of Independence. However, one group initiated by former members of the brotherhood, Hizb ut Tahrir, formed in the West Bank, later evolved into an international Islamist organization.

After 1967, the main front organization of the brotherhood was Ahmad Yassin 's Mujama‘ (established 1973), a welfare charity (clinics, kindergartens, education), that was encouraged by Israeli civilian administration in Gaza to apply for registered charity status in 1978 and  was indirectly funded by Israel as a means of dividing Palestinian society. It collected funds from from local zakat collections, Gulf Islamic organizations (often via Jordan), and expatriate Palestinians. Due to its identification of secular forces in Palestinian society  as the main opponent, there was considerable tension with PLO, which climaxed in January 1980 when Islamist activists attacked Red Crescent Society offices and  attempted to march on the home of its Director, Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi. Its main base was the Islamic University of Gaza, founded after Sadat closed Egyptian universities to Gazans due to Palestinian protest at Camp David. Sheikh Awwad's preexisting religious college, the only higher education institution in Gaza, was transformed into a University, ,However, with tensions over IUG's basic policy, Mujama‘ encouraged Israeli authorities to dismiss their opponents in the committee in February of 1981, resulting in subsequent Islamisation of IUG policy and  staff including the obligation on women to wear the hijab and  thobe and separate entrances for men and  women), and enforced by  violence and  ostracization of dissenters. Tacit complicity from both university and  Israeli authorities allowed Mujama‘ to keep a weapons cache to use against secularists. By the mid 1980s, it was was the largest university in occupied territories with 4,500 students, and  student elections were won handily by Mujama‘.

Outside the university, Mujama had only limited support. This  included support in early 1980s from medical and  engineering associations and some support from UNRWA teachers. Throughout the 1980s, it increasingly used violence against institutions  such as cinemas, places selling or serving alcohol, casinos, which it deemed un-Islamic. Its increasingly overt political aspirations, especially in Khan Yunis under ‘Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, eventually led to conflict with Israel. In 1984  13 members including Yassin were arrested by Israel and an arms cache seized, and leadership was passed to Rantisi and Dr Ibrahim Yazuri. There were  also splits from the Brotherhood by those who advocated Islamic liberation of Palestine, especially Islamic Jihad in 80-90s. By 1985, Gazan membership of Mujama‘ was about 2,000, largely employed in religious, community service and  trading sectors; leadership was largely born around 1948 and grew up as refugees in Gaza, with professional education often in Egypt.

Hamas was formed about February 1988 to allow participation of the brotherhood in the first Intifada. The  founding leaders of Hamas were: Ahmad Yassin, ‘Abd al-Fattah Dukhan, Muhammed Shama’, Ibrahim al-Yazuri, Issa al-Najjar, Salah Shehadeh (from Bayt Hanun) and ‘Abd al-Aziz Rantisi. Dr. Mahmud Zahar is also usually listed as one of the original leader.  Other leaders include: Sheikh Khalil Qawqa, Isa al-Ashar, Musa Abu Marzuq, Ibrahim Ghusha, Khalid Mish’al.

The August 1988 Charter declared that all Palestine is Islamic trust land, can never be surrendered to non-Muslims and  is an integral part of Muslim world. It cites the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion as legitimate documents, declares that negotiations and international conferences are a waste of time, and blames 'Zionists' for the French and Russian revolutions.

Hamas was created as three separate wings. The political wing, staffed by Yassin's closest allies (Shanab, Yazuri, Rantisi, Zahhar)  produced leaflets, raised funds especially in Gulf, recruited members and  coopted mosques. The intelligence apparatus, known as al-Majd (glory), under Yihyah Sanwar and  Ruhi Mushtaha, was created for internal policing, especially of Gaza (eg killing collaborators). It later merged with the military wing, ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, which began as the smallest wing. Hamas operated through a cell system, and was therefore hard for Israeli agents to  penetrated. Israel barely interfered with its activities initially, continuing to see it as a social reformist organization and  thus promoting it as a viable partner in discussions in order to marginalize the PLO, resulting in frequent meetings between Hamas figures (including Yassin) and  Israeli government officials such as a reported  Zahar-Rabin meeting. This tacit cooperation ended with the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers Sasportas and Sa'don. Hamas was banned and Ahmed Yassin and others were arrested.  

Military actions, though originally declared incompatible with religion, were seen as part of the Brotherhood’s increasing reconciliation with nationalism and drew support from refugees, white collar workers and  professionals. The Hamas agreed to abide by decisions of the PNC in 1989, but called for elections to it (1991). By 1990-1, they were cooperating with PFLP in opposition to Fatah policies.

Unlike Arafat, Hamas did not support Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Instead they called for both Iraqi and  US withdrawal. Consequently,  Gulf States shifted their funding from PLO to Hamas, and may have donated as much as  $28m per month (from Saudi Arabia primarily). Hamas  thus took PLO's welfare role away from it, generating considerable public support due to their greater efficiency. There were armed confrontations with Fatah,  and some conciliatory meetings, calling for unity, especially with December 1992 expulsions of Hamas leaders by Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin. The January 1993 meeting in Khartum  resulted in increased coordination, pledges of mutual nonviolence, and  PLO pledging delay in returning to talks with Israel until  the deported activists were returned. Also, after the" al-Aqsa massacre" in October 1990, Hamas turned its primary opposition to Israel; it declared every Israeli soldier and  settler a legitimate target. In fact, it had already been kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers.

Hamas shunned the Oslo peace process and  joined the wider rejectionist alliance which managed to gain considerable support (over 20% of Palestinians support Hamas and Islamic Jihad despite PNA pressure). The first Hamas suicide bombing in opposition to the Oslo accords was conducted in 1993.

The Palestine Authority (PA) tried to use foreign donor funds to replace Hamas welfare services, but it did not move vigorously to suppress the Hamas after signing the Oslo accords and renouncing terror.  In 1994, after protest against the PA, there were shootings in Gaza by PA police and Arafat coopted the leadership in Gaza, which subsequently opted for non-military measures. This caused a split in Hamas leadership throughout the occupied territories. At the same time, Abu Marzuq, head of Hamas political leadership in Jordan, gave de facto acceptance of Israel within 1948 borders, by declaring that a hudna (truce) would be in place if Israel  withdrew from the occupied territories, signifying supposedly a recognition of the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line. This was also reiterated by Sheikh Yassin in a Spring 94 letter in which he offered a ceasefire (hudna) if Israeli forces withdraw from occupied territories, settlements were dismantled and prisoners were released.  and  by Rantissi. In 1996 after a series of suicide bombings in Israel, and coincident with the signing of the Oslo II accord, Muhamed Dahlan supposedly ensured the thorough dismantling of Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, including charities and  welfare agencies, but in fact, Hamas remained in place.

The confrontation with the PA became most explicit while the Hamas leadership (Rantisi, Yassin, Abu Marzuq) were in jail, but all were subsequently released. Yassin was released in 1997 after a failed Israeli attempt on the life of Khaled Mashaal in Jordan. A  new modus vivendi was achieved that allowed Hamas to operate as long as they didn't oppose the  Palestinian Authority. Thus, they could not attack the  Oslo accords directly and  reprisals against PA repression were taken against Israel. Hamas presents itself as an alternative to the PA internationally, through diplomacy. Despite its role in establishing the Damascus 10 refusal front grouping, Hamas participates in the National and Islamic Front that was initiated by Marwan Barghouti. 

There are several divisions and potentials for splits within the Hamas. The political and  military wings  had become semi-independent before Oslo to protect the political  decision-makers. Arafat used this fissure in mid 95, holding dialogue with the political wing and  seeking its participation in the political process, while  combating the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades. This resulted in minor Hamas participation in elections, while the military wing were exploding buses in Israel 2 months later. The Diaspora leadership is much more strongly opposed to the Oslo process than those in the occupied territories, backing the military wing especially when PA-Israel deals were thought to be forthcoming. There was dissension  in the political wing on participation in elections. This was never settled, with Hamas candidates running in election without formal party approval. Within the military wing, the newly created ‘Cells of the Martyr the Engineer Yahya Ayyash'  were more hard line than Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades. Additionally, the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank, which centers around the Hebron area and Bir Zeit University, could split from the Ikhwan-dominated Gaza group, which is apparently more militant.

During the second Intifada, Hamas became active both politically and militarily. It joined with the Fatah Al-Aqsa brigades in several suicide attacks, and also began plotting to usurp leadership of the Palestine Authority from the PLO. Popularity soared as polls showed combined Hamas/Islamic Jihad support exceeding 30 percent. Hamas was blacklisted as a terrorist group by the United Sates and eventually by the EU as well, and Saudi Arabia began withholding support from Hamas. Shi'ite Iran apparently had become the financial mainstay of the Hamas, which also received moral support from the Iranian supported Hizbollah. Egyptian sponsored talks during the tenure of PNA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas failed to produce agreement on a cease-fire with Israel, but the PLO nevertheless failed to move against Hamas, and announced that it would not do so.

Hamas popularity increased after Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin March 22, 2004. Abdel  Azziz Rantissi was chosen to succeed him. Hamas and PLO/PNA began intensive negotiations to allow Hamas to join the Palestine Authority government and also to rejoin the PLO. At the same time Hamas was marginalized in the Arab world, and reportedly lost all Saudi funding, including the residual funding that was supposedly used for charities. This support has apparently been replaced by massive funding from Iran. Rantissi was assassinated on April 17, 2004. Mahmoud Zahar was reportedly chosen to replace him, but the appointment was not announced.

In March of 2005, following the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) to succeed Yasser Arafat as President of the Palestine Nation Authority as well as chairman of the PLO, Palestinian groups met in a conference in Cairo. The conference decided on a Tahadiyeh - "lull" in the fighting with Israel. At the same time, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced that they would be joining the PLO. The Hamas also decided to participate for the first time in Palestine Legislative Council elections. However, in January of 2006, candidates representing the Hamas swept to victory in Palestinian elections, overcoming the traditional leadership of the Fateh and PLO.  Polls showed that most Palestinians want the Hamas to negotiate with Israel and give up its non-recognition of the Jewish state, but Hamas leaders were at least initially adamant in their refusal to recognize Israel.


Ami Isseroff

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