Backgrounder

What Is Hamas?

The Palestinian armed group has struggled to govern Gaza. Yet, it remains committed to resisting Israel and shows little desire to reconcile with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
A parade for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s militant arm, is held in Gaza.
A parade for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s militant arm, is held in Gaza. Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Summary
  • A spin-off of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s, the Islamist militant group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip after defeating its rival political party, Fatah, in elections in 2006.
  • The United States and European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist organization because of its armed resistance against Israel, which has included suicide bombings and rocket attacks.
  • Hamas’s 2021 conflict with Israel ended in a cease-fire, but experts say future violence between the two sides is almost certain.

Introduction

Hamas is a militant movement and one of the Palestinian territories’ two major political parties. It governs more than two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but the group is best known for its armed resistance to Israel. Dozens of countries have designated Hamas a terrorist organization, though some apply this label only to its military wing. Iran provides it with material and financial support, and Turkey reportedly harbors some of its top leaders. Its rival party, Fatah, which dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and rules in the West Bank, has renounced violence. The split in Palestinian leadership and Hamas’s unwavering hostility toward Israel have diminished prospects for stability in Gaza.

What are the group’s origins?

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Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Resistance Movement”), was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian cleric who became an activist in local branches 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, both of which Israel occupied following the 1967 Six-Day War.

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Yassin established Hamas as the Brotherhood’s political arm in Gaza in December 1987, following the outbreak of the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. At the time, Hamas’s purpose was to counter Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another organization whose commitment to violently resisting Israel threatened to draw Palestinians’ support away from the Brotherhood. In 1988, Hamas published its charter, calling for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic society in historic Palestine. In what observers called an attempt to moderate its image, Hamas presented a new document [PDF] in 2017 that accepted an interim Palestinian state along the “Green Line” border established before the Six-Day War but that still refused to recognize Israel.

Hamas first employed suicide bombing in April 1993, five months before PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. The historic pact established limited self-government for parts of the West Bank and Gaza under a newly created entity called the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas condemned the accords, as well as the PLO’s and Israel’s recognition of each other, which Arafat and Rabin officially agreed to in letters sent days before Oslo.

In 1997, the United States designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization. The movement went on to spearhead violent resistance during the second intifada, in the early 2000s, though PIJ and Fatah’s Tanzim militia were also responsible for violence against Israelis.

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Who are its leaders?

Hamas has a host of leadership bodies that perform various political, military, and social functions. General policy is set by an overarching consultative body, often called the politburo, which operates in exile. Local committees manage grassroots issues in Gaza and the West Bank.

Chart depicting the leadership and structure of Hamas

Ismail Haniyeh currently serves as political chief, having replaced longtime leader Khaled Meshaal in 2017. Haniyeh has operated from Doha, Qatar, since 2020, reportedly because Egypt restricts his movement into and out of Gaza. Hamas leaders established a presence in Qatar after falling out with their previous host, Syria, when Palestinian refugees participated in the 2011 uprising that preceded the Syrian Civil War. Western intelligence officials believe some senior Hamas figures operate out of Turkey.

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Day-to-day affairs in Gaza are overseen by Yahya Sinwar, who previously headed Hamas’s military wing and served twenty-two years in an Israeli prison for masterminding the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers. He was among the more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners freed in 2011 in exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Hamas. As of June 2021, Gaza’s de facto prime minister is Issam al-Da’alis.

Marwan Issa and Mohammed Deif command Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Israeli forces assassinated the militia’s founder, Salah Shehadeh, in a 2002 air strike. Fifteen civilians were killed in the attack, focusing Israeli and international scrutiny on such tactics. Israelis forces killed Yassin, Hamas’s founder, in 2004.

Saleh al-Arouri became the head of Hamas’s West Bank leadership following internal elections that concluded in 2021. He previously directed the group’s armed activities in the territory from overseas. Meshaal was chosen to lead the diaspora office and Salameh Katawi was elected to manage the affairs of imprisoned Hamas members.

How is Hamas funded?

As a designated terrorist entity, Hamas is cut off from official assistance that the United States and European Union provide to the PLO in the West Bank. Historically, Palestinian expatriates and private donors in the Gulf provided much of the movement’s funding. In addition, some Islamic charities in the West have channeled money to Hamas-backed social service groups, prompting asset freezes by the U.S. Treasury.

Gaza’s economic situation is dire. Egypt and Israel largely closed their borders with it in 2006–07, restricting the movement of goods and people into and out of the territory. The two countries maintain a blockade, cutting off the territory from most of the world and forcing over one million Gazan Palestinians to rely on international aid. Israel allows Qatar to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance through Hamas. Other foreign aid generally reaches Gaza via the PA and UN agencies.

For years after the blockade began, Hamas collected revenue by taxing goods moving through a sophisticated network of tunnels that circumvented the Egyptian crossing into Gaza; this brought staples such as food, medicine, and cheap gas for electricity production into the territory, as well as construction materials, cash, and arms. After Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took power in 2013, Cairo became hostile toward Hamas, which it saw as an extension of its chief domestic rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian army shut down most of the tunnels breaching its territory while it waged a counterterrorism campaign against a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State on its side of the border, on the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt began to allow some commercial goods to enter Gaza through its Salah al-Din border crossing in 2018. As of 2021, Hamas reportedly collects upwards of $12 million per month from taxes on Egyptian goods imported into Gaza.

Today, Iran is one of Hamas’s biggest benefactors, contributing funds, weapons, and training. Though Iran and Hamas briefly fell out after backing opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War, by 2019, Iran was providing $100 million annually to Hamas, PIJ, and other Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, according to a U.S. State Department report [PDF]. However, U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal have constrained Tehran’s ability to fund its foreign partners.

Turkey has been another stalwart backer of Hamas—and a critic of Israel—following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power in 2002. Though Ankara insists it only backs Hamas politically, it has been accused of funding Hamas’s terrorism, including through aid diverted from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.

How does it govern Gaza?

Hamas has been the de facto authority in Gaza since shortly after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005. The following year, Hamas won a majority of seats in the PA’s legislature and formed a government. It earned votes for the social services it provided and as a rejection of the incumbent Fatah, which many voters perceived as having grown corrupt at the helm of the PLO and delivering little to Palestinians through its negotiations with Israel. The outcome was unacceptable to the PLO, which ousted Hamas from power in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas routed Fatah’s militias in a week of fighting, resulting in a political schism between the two Palestinian territories. Palestinians have not voted for a legislature since 2006, nor a president since 2008.

“The Hamas-controlled government has no effective or independent mechanisms for ensuring transparency in its funding, procurements, or operations.”
Freedom House

As Hamas took over the remnants of PA institutions in the strip, it established a judiciary and put in place authoritarian institutions. In theory, Hamas governs in accordance with the sharia-based Palestinian Basic Law, as does the PA; but it has generally been more restrictive than the law requires, including by controlling how women dress and enforcing gender segregation in public during the early years of its rule. The watchdog group Freedom House found in 2020 that the “Hamas-controlled government has no effective or independent mechanisms for ensuring transparency in its funding, procurements, or operations.” Hamas also represses the Gazan media, civilian activism on social media, the political opposition, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), leaving it without mechanisms for accountability.

How do Palestinians view Hamas?

The political bifurcation of the West Bank and Gaza is widely unpopular; a March 2021 poll [PDF] by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) showed that the territories’ reunification was a top priority for voters ahead of elections that were scheduled for May. Analysts expected that the vote could allow Hamas to extend its power into the West Bank because Fatah’s internal divisions indicated that elections could further undermine PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s power. But Abbas postponed the elections indefinitely, citing Israel’s alleged refusal to let Palestinians in East Jerusalem vote. Observers suspect that he wanted to prevent a Hamas victory.

Hamas’s popularity surged following its conflict with Israel in May 2021, a trend regularly seen after bouts of violence with the country. A PCPSR poll in June [PDF] found that 53 percent of Palestinians surveyed in Gaza and the West Bank believe that Hamas is “most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people,” compared with only 14 percent who prefer Fatah. However, pollsters anticipate that support for Hamas could decrease, as it has after previous conflicts.

How does Hamas challenge Israel?

Hamas began firing rockets and mortars into Israel after the group took over Gaza. Iranian security officials have said that Tehran provided some of these weapons, but that Hamas gained the ability to build its own missiles after training with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and proxies. Additionally, Hamas militants frequently fly balloons carrying incendiary devices toward Israel, which sometimes causes fires. The group has also carried out incursions into Israeli territory, most famously kidnapping Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. Five years later, Israel released more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners, including Sinwar, to secure Shalit’s release. In 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the movement of kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teens in the West Bank. Indications that a rogue cell committed the abductions highlighted Hamas’s inability to control all those affiliated with it, analysts say.

“Even for those Palestinians who do not support Hamas and Islamic Jihad, what they are doing amounts to legitimate resistance.”
Steven A. Cook, CFR

Hamas’s commitment to armed resistance against Israel garners some public support. “Israeli officials like to tell everyone who will listen that Palestinians in Gaza are victims of Hamas. That is true, but I suspect that first and foremost they feel victimized by Israel,” CFR’s Steven A. Cook writes. “And thus, even for those Palestinians who do not support Hamas and Islamic Jihad, what they are doing amounts to legitimate resistance.”

What happened during the 2021 Hamas-Israel conflict?

Hamas and Israel entered their deadliest conflict in six years in May, when Hamas fired rockets into Israel following weeks of tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem. Some analysts say that Hamas wanted to bolster its reputation as the defender of the Palestinian cause after the PA postponed the 2021 elections. During the eleven-day conflict, Hamas and PIJ fired more than four thousand rockets from Gaza, killing ten Israeli civilians and injuring more than three hundred others. Hamas reportedly coordinated with the IRGC and Lebanon’s Hezbollah during the fighting, and used so-called suicide drones along with its usual arsenal of imprecise missiles.

The United States and Egypt brokered a cease-fire to the conflict, during which Israeli air strikes killed more than two hundred Palestinian civilians and caused more than $290 million worth of damage [PDF] in Gaza. Donor countries such as the United States have since sought to fund reconstruction without helping Hamas. U.S. President Joe Biden said Washington would coordinate with the PA and the United Nations to provide aid while avoiding helping the group to replenish its arsenal.

What’s next for Hamas?

Observers say Hamas’s latest conflict with Israel increased the group’s political clout. Hamas won support as the champion of the broader Palestinian national movement for the first time in years by attacking Israel in response to tensions in Jerusalem rather than confining itself to issues in Gaza. The May 21 cease-fire has held, though the issues that sparked the conflict remain unresolved, including the threatened evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Israel likely sees the cease-fire as a return to the status quo, in which Hamas has a diminished arsenal but remains capable of keeping more radical groups in check, CFR’s Martin S. Indyk says.

A lasting peace would likely require Hamas to reconcile with its rivals in the West Bank, as their disunity precludes Palestinians from coherently negotiating with Israel. But experts say Hamas has few incentives to join the PA, and doing so would likely necessitate unappealing concessions. For instance, the Middle East Quartet—which comprises the United States, United Nations, EU, and Russia—asserts that any Palestinian government involving Hamas can only receive international recognition and aid if the group recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and accepts the PLO’s signed agreements with Israel.

Recommended Resources

For Foreign Affairs, PCPSR Director Khalil Shikaki argues that the 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict ushered in a new, more violent era of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

NPR’s Jackie Northam discusses the civilian cost of the Israeli military’s efforts to destroy Hamas’s tunnel networks.

Egypt’s Sisi played an important role in securing the May 21 cease-fire, CFR’s Steven A. Cook writes, allowing Cairo to prove it is central to regional stability and a critical partner for the United States.

This Backgrounder looks at U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli NGO Gisha maps access to the Gaza Strip [PDF] and documents restrictions on the movement of people and goods enforced by Israel and Egypt.

The European Council on Foreign Relations explores Palestinian politics.

Alice Hickson contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphic.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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