The Hamas militant movement launched one of the largest assaults on Israel in decades on Saturday, killing hundreds of people, kidnapping soldiers and civilians and leading Israel to declare war. The largest of the armed Islamist groups in the Palestinian territory, Hamas governs the Gaza Strip, home to two million people.
What is Hamas?
Hamas was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was active in the Muslim Brotherhood, during the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli military control of the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas has since been responsible for suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, and the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers. The United States is among the countries that have deemed it a terrorist group. But Hamas is also the governing power in the Gaza Strip.
Unlike the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state and has spoken about driving all Jews from the region. It has advocated an uncompromising position on the creation of a Palestinian state based on Islamic fundamentalism stretching from the Mediterranean east to the Jordan River.
What is its role in the Palestinian territories?
An Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas was founded on three pillars: religion, charity and the fight against Israel.
For years it has had a contentious relationship with its rival Palestinian party, Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas. A year after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections, beating Fatah. In 2007, after factional fighting in Gaza, it ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and seized control of the Gaza Strip.
In the early years, Hamas was widely embraced by Palestinians as the group most willing to resist Israel, and it was seen by some as less corrupt and better organized than the Palestinian Authority. But dissatisfaction has risen as Palestinians’ lives have worsened amid conflict and years of Israeli and Egyptian blockade, and some feel the group’s attacks have damaged Palestinians as well.
Who are its allies and supporters?
Within the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in the region, are frequently united against Israel.
Islamic Jihad often acts independently of Hamas and is focused primarily on military confrontation. On some occasions, Hamas has exerted pressure on Islamic Jihad to stop attacks or retaliation against Israel or stayed on the sidelines as the group clashed with Israel. At others, Hamas has been drawn into battle.
Hamas is allied with Middle Eastern countries like Syria and entities like the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon that oppose U.S. and Israeli policies. One of its most vocal supporters is Iran, which has its own interests in battling Israel. For decades, Iran has given Hamas weapons, technology and training to build its own arsenal of advanced rockets that can reach deep into Israeli territory.