The section of land along the eastern Mediterranean Sea known as the Gaza Strip may be small, but it highly congested and harbors several Islamist groups. The largest and most powerful is Hamas, which is classified by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It is also so designated by the European Union, Canada and Japan.
The name Hamas is actually an acronym, from the Arabic for Islamic Resistance Movement. The group’s origins go back to 1987, after the beginning of the first intifada uprising against Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Hamas used suicide attacks to bring itself publicity and later, its opposition to the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Until 2005, Hamas had two purposes. First, waging war against Israel. Second, the delivery of social welfare programs. It was in that year that Hamas began participating in the Palestinian political process and became the first Arab Islamist group to obtain power through democratic means. (An Islamist is someone who wants society and government converted to follow the various prescriptions of Islam.) This was before Hamas took control of Gaza by force.
Hamas acquired its status as a terrorist group because of its history of offensive attacks and its ongoing refusal to renounce violence. Indeed, the preamble to the group’s charter codifies its commitment to the destruction of Israel: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
Hamas did well in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections and this triggered economic sanctions from Israel and the Quartet on the Middle East (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia). The election results also increased tensions between Hamas and another Palestinian militant group, Fatah. In the next year Hamas forced its own, rival government into the Gaza Strip.
It was at this point that Israel began holding Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip and, since then, Israel has executed three major military campaigns there. As with the current conflict, the previous offensives (2008 and 2012) were also preceded by increases in fighting across the border, missile attacks from Gaza, and Israeli air strikes in response. Degraded militarily, Palestinians nevertheless admired Hamas for having opposed Israel and survived.
Although Hamas and Fatah formed a government together in 2007, Hamas seized unilateral control of the Gaza Strip shortly thereafter in the Battle of Gaza. Institutions of government were seized and government officials – including those from Fatah – were replaced. Israel and one of its former enemies, Egypt, then moved to isolate Hamas by instituting a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza. Hamas struggled under the blockade and became increasingly isolated in the wake of the Arab Spring (a wave of still-ongoing non-violent and violent protests and civil wars across the Arab world). Since then, Israel has eased back somewhat on the blockade for non-military goods (June 2010) and Egypt reopened the border crossing at Rafah in 2011. In April of this year, Hamas and Fatah reconciled and another national unity government was formed.
By Gregory Baskin