Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
Updated: November 27, 2012

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Courtesy Reuters
What is Hamas?

Hamas is the largest and most influential Palestinian militant movement that, along with the more moderate Fatah party, serves as one of the two primary Palestinian political factions. Founded in 1987 during the first Intifada, Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization violently opposed to the state of Israel. Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawana al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), has exercised de facto rule over the Gaza Strip since wresting the territory from its rival Fatah, which governs the West Bank, in 2007. The two parties have made overtures of reconciliation in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, but progress on this score has proven elusive. Despite its militant reputation, Hamas's local support in many ways can be traced to its extensive network of on-the-ground social programming, including food banks, schools, and medical clinics.

Hamas is viewed by most Western analysts as an obstacle to the Arab-Israeli peace process and the goal of a two-state solution. As a result, Western nations, including the United States, have tried to embolden the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority while isolating Hamas, which has historically kept strong ties to Iran. However, direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have been frozen since 2010, and the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in late 2012 threatens to erode the prospects for renewed talks in the near term.

What are the origins of Hamas?

Hamas was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian spiritual leader who became an activist in the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood after dedicating his early life to Islamic scholarship in Cairo. Beginning in the late 1960s, Yassin preached and performed charitable work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which were seized by Israeli forces following the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1973, he established al-Mujamma' al-Islami (the Islamic Center) to coordinate the Brotherhood's political activities in Gaza.

Yassin established Hamas as the Brotherhood's local political arm in December 1987, following the outbreak of the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli control of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Hamas published its official charter in 1988, moving decidedly away from the Brotherhood's ethos of nonviolence.

The first Hamas suicide bombing took place in April 1993, five months before Yasir Arafat, then leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister of Israel, sealed the Oslo Accords, a historic peace pact that, among other things, established limited self-government for parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Palestinian authority (PA). Hamas subsequently condemned the Oslo Accords, and has since launched a campaign of terrorism in efforts to undercut peace negotiations.

The U.S. State Department officially designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in October 1997. It is currently one of seven Palestinian FTOs; the other six include: Palestine Islamic Jihad; Abu Nidal Organization; Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades; Palestinian Liberation Front; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Hamas's local support, in many ways, can be traced to its extensive network of on-the-ground social programming, including food banks, schools, and medical clinics.
Who are Hamas’s leaders?

Analysts say that Hamas has a host of leadership bodies across the organization, as well as by region, that perform its various political, military, and social functions, noting that it remains unclear exactly who controls the group's overall strategy and decision-making. According to the U.S. State Department, general policy is set by an overarching consultative body known as the Shura Council. There are also local Shura committees that deal with grassroots issues in Gaza and the West Bank.

The overall leader of Hamas since 2004 is Khaled Meshaal, a former teacher who is currently based in Doha, Qatar. In January 2012, Meshaal abandoned his longtime base of operations in Damascus, Syria, amid the country's ongoing civil war. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service [PDF], Meshaal's leadership and influence are being challenged in 2012, partly due to the perception of some of Hamas' prominent leaders in Gaza that he favors political over military resistance. Meshaal, who traveled to Cairo to help broker a de-escalation of the conflict with Israel in late 2012, may see his political prospects improving.

Hamas's prime minister is Gaza-based Ismail Haniyeh, a former leader of the group's student movement and close associate of its spiritual founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated along with much of the Hamas leadership in 2004. Analysts say Haniyeh is seen as a pragmatist within Hamas, and more open to talks with Israel.

Hamas's military wing, known as the Qassam Brigades, was led by Ahmed Jabari (aka Abu Mohamed) until November 2012, when he was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his vehicle in Gaza. His replacement has yet to be selected.

Where does Hamas operate?

Hamas's primary base of popular support is in the Gaza Strip, where it has maintained de facto control since its 2006, when it surprised many observers by winning the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. Hamas ousted the remnants of Fatah from Gaza by force in early 2007, after which the Hamas-led government was summarily dismissed by PA president and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas. The result of the bloodshed was a de facto geographic division of Palestinian-held territory, with Hamas holding sway in Gaza and Fatah maintaining the internationally recognized PA government in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian

The upheavals of the Arab Spring in early 2011 led many Palestinians to push for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the two sides signed an accord in May 2011. "We need to achieve the common goal: a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital, no settlers, and we will not give up the right of return," Meshaal said at the signing in Cairo. Yet Hamas and Fatah were at odds again several months later when Abbas decided to seek recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN, a move Hamas vehemently opposed in the beginning, although Meshaal and others said they would support it following the 2012 Gaza conflict.

Early on, some observers hoped that political legitimacy—and the accountability that comes with it—could wean Hamas away from violence. But to date, the group has refused to eschew violence and remains adamant about reversing the decision by the more secular Fatah to recognize Israel's right to exist. Following Hamas's capture of Gaza, Egypt and Israel largely closed their borders with the territory. Israel continues to maintain a blockade of the Gaza strip.

However, Hamas employs a vast, sophisticated network of underground tunnels to circumvent the Israeli economic blockade, smuggling everything from food and medicine to cash and advanced Iranian rocketry. According to National Geographic, taxes on Gaza tunnel trafficking provide Hamas with an estimated $750 million a year.

Since coming to power in Gaza, rockets fired from the territory have consistently landed on Israeli border cities, sometimes producing casualties. Israel has retaliated militarily on targets in Gaza, most notably in 2009 with a full-blown ground invasion and a sustained campaign of airstrikes. In late 2012, analysts speculate whether a similar fate awaits Gaza after rockets rained down on many Israeli urban centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In what does Hamas believe and what are its goals?

Hamas combines Palestinian nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism. Its founding charter commits the group to the destruction of Israel, the replacement of the PA with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza, and to raising "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine."

Some analysts maintain that Hamas remains reluctant to give up violence and compromise on territory, while others note that some of its leaders have stated a qualified willingness to accept peace with Israel and a Palestinian state that does not include all of historic Palestine.

In July 2009, Khaled Meshaal said Hamas was willing to cooperate with the United States on promoting a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamas, he said, would accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders provided Palestinian refugees be allowed to return and East Jerusalem be recognized as the Palestinian capital. However, the proposal fell short of recognizing the state of Israel, a necessary step for Hamas to be included in peace talks.

Still, other experts claim such overtures are cynical attempts by Hamas to curry popular Palestinian support, consolidate its power, and await a more opportune time to revive violence against Israel.

Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its Qassam Brigades, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70 million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the social and political work done by Hamas—and its reputation among Palestinians for being averse to corruption—partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote.

Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, health clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. "Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities," wrote Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas's efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain its broad popularity.

How is Hamas funded?

Since its electoral victory to lead the PA, Hamas has had public funds at its disposal, though it does not have access to the foreign-aid dollars traditionally provided by the United States and European Union to the PA. Historically, much of Hamas's funding came from Palestinian expatriates and private donors in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states. Iran also provides significant support, which some diplomats say could amount to $20-30 million per year. In addition, some Muslim charities in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe funnel money into Hamas-backed social service groups. In December 2001, the Bush administration seized the assets of the Holy Land Foundation, the largest Muslim charity in the United States, on suspicions it was funding Hamas.

In 2011-2012, Hamas distanced itself from Shia-dominated Iran, its primary benefactor, due to Tehran's support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his regime's violent crackdown on largely Sunni antigovernment activists. Iran reportedly cut funding to Hamas (at least temporarily) in the fallout, and sought to bolster its ties to alternative anti-Israel groups in the region, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. However, some reports suggest that despite the contretemps, Iran may continue to funnel money to Hamas.

What attacks is Hamas responsible for?

Hamas is believed to have killed more than four hundred Israelis and at least twenty-five U.S. citizens since 1993 using an array of tactics including suicide bombings, homemade rockets, and mortar attacks, according to a December 2010 CRS report [PDF]. "The most pronounced trend since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005," wrote Jim Zanotti, "has been an increased firing of rockets and mortars from the territory." According to the Israel Defense Forces, terrorists (not just Hamas) have fired more than 8,000 rockets into Israel, killing 44 Israelis and injuring more than 1,600 (as of 2011) since 2005. Such attacks prompted the Israeli military's "Operation Pillar of Defense" in late 2012.

Is Hamas popular among Palestinians?

Hamas has a history of fluctuating public approval. According to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, in late 2006, Hamas enjoyed public backing, though most Palestinians also wanted to see a negotiated settlement with Israel. In late 2008 and early 2009, during a violent flare-up that resulted in Israeli land raids into the Gaza Strip, several news agencies reported that Hamas's popularity had stayed constant or even increased. By the end of June 2009, public support for Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip fell to 18.8 percent, according to polls conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center.

In the wake of the regional upheavals in the spring of 2011, a June survey of public opinion found that 67 percent of Gazans would support demonstrations seeking regime change, and that 50 percent of them would participate in such demonstrations. Gazan youth in particular expressed dissatisfaction with Hamas, according to the polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

What are the policy implications?

The United States—along with Israel, the European Union, and Canada—recognizes Hamas as a terrorist organization, and has historically sought to marginalize the group's threat to Israel and the prospects for a two-state solution. But while Washington and its partners in the international Quartet (the EU, UN, and Russia) have sought to empower Hamas's rival, the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank, in peace talks with Israel, direct negotiations between the two parties have been frozen since 2010.

With the outbreak of violence in Gaza in late 2012, many analysts believe Hamas is gaining credibility at the expense of Fatah. In addition, the recent ascendance of friendly Islamist regimes in many Arab states, particularly Egypt, has altered the regional context and potentially bolstered Hamas' credibility.

"With the United States, Israel, and other countries urging Egypt to rein in the Gaza leaders, Hamas's centrality as the locus of decision-making grows rather than diminishes," wrote CFR's Robert Danin. "This then encourages other Middle East leaders to accelerate their rush to Gaza, while skipping Ramallah, to court Hamas's leadership."

CFR's Ed Husain says Israel must talk directly with Hamas, noting that efforts to isolate the group internationally by labeling it a terrorist organization have proved fruitless. "In a new Middle East, where popular opinion matters more than ever before, to demand that people condemn Hamas is a political nonstarter," he wrote.

Additional Resources

In this April 2014 installment of the New York Times' "Room for Debate," four experts discuss whether Hamas-Fatah unity can lead to Mideast peace.

This CFR Crisis Guide provides an in-depth, multimedia look at the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This CFR Backgrounder examines the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organization that has spawned Sunni Islamist groups throughout the Arab world.

More on this topic from CFR

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