A history of resistance

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniya. - AFP

Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniya. - AFP

HAMAS is the acronym in Arabic of the Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement). In Arabic the acronym also means "enthusiasm, fire, ardour". Formed in 1987, on the eve of the first Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation, Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist party in West Asia founded in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood's activities in Palestine, primarily the Gaza Strip, began in the late 1960s. It soon spread to the West Bank, slowly attracting professional groups of doctors and engineers to its ranks. Since the early 1980s, Palestinian activists sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood started making preparations for a long-drawn-out political and military struggle against Israel. The success of the Iranian revolution and the strides made by Islamist parties in Lebanon and elsewhere inspired them. All this culminated in the formation of Hamas.

Initially, the majority of Palestinians treated Hamas with suspicion. After all, it owed its existence to the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported King Hussein of Jordan's bloody "Black September" crackdown on the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in that country in the late 1970s. The Muslim Brotherhood was at that time virulently against nationalistic and secular regimes, which held sway in many parts of the Arab world. This animosity, to a large extent, could be attributed to the banning of the party in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood was also implicated in assassination plots against popular Arab leaders such as Gamel Abdel Nasser.

The Muslim Brotherhood's rivalry with progressive forces in the 1950s and 1960s and its links with the Jordanian monarchy may have lulled the Israelis into initially giving Hamas a free hand to organise in the occupied territories. However, the Hamas leadership refused to oblige the Israeli government by indulging in fratricidal blood-letting. Its leadership asserted that it was "obligatory" for Palestinians to wage jehad against the occupying power. By plunging headlong into the first intifada, Hamas emerged overnight as a strong competitor to the Fatah for the hearts and minds of ordinary Palestinians. Hamas got a boost when PLO leader Yasser Arafat accepted United Nations Resolution 181 in 1988, in the process tacitly recognising Israel. This move brought international recognition, especially from Western countries, for Arafat and his Fatah. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, led to the establishment of the P.A. and the promise of a Palestinian state.

Hamas, on the other hand, stood by its steadfast rejection of the state of Israel. With Israel later on reneging on its commitments under the Oslo Accord and with hopes of a viable Palestinian state diminishing by the day, Hamas' credibility among Palestinians grew domestically while the Fatah functionaries got transformed into Ministers and bureaucrats. Hamas also created a social infrastructure for the Palestinians in the occupied territories by constructing hospitals, schools, libraries, orphanages and seminaries. On the other hand, a lot of the international aid that the P.A. received went into private bank accounts. In 1988, Hamas published its manifesto calling for the creation of a Palestinian state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan river. The manifesto challenged the PLO's claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

Ties between Hamas and the P.A. improved to a great extent after the second intifada began in 2000 following Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. President Yasser Arafat released a large number of Hamas activists that the P.A.'s security forces had arrested on orders from Tel Aviv and Washington. Meanwhile, sections of the Fatah moved closer to Hamas. Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant wing of the Fatah, supported and joined Hamas in military action against Israel.

Hamas also built bridges with radical Palestinian groupings such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) led by veteran revolutionary George Habbash to build an alternative to the leadership of the PLO, known as the "Rejection Front". Other members of the Front were the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ). In September 1989, Israel declared Hamas an "illegal" organisation.

As the election results show, Hamas' pragmatic blend of nationalism coupled with asceticism obviously appealed to a broad cross-section of the Palestinian people. As an Opposition party, Hamas aggressively focussed on issues that the P.A. put on the back burner - "right of return" for the Palestinians languishing in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Palestine and the undivided unity of the Palestinian people.

Hamas' armed wing, the Izzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, was created in 1992. It is named after Sheikh Izzedine al-Qassam, the first important leader of contemporary Arab resistance against imperialism. By 1994, the organisation started its military operations with the first suicide bombing in an Israeli city.

Israel retaliated with targeted killing of Hamas leaders and activists. One of the most prominent Hamas leaders to be assassinated was Yehiyeh Ayyash, a top leader of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Israel dropped a one-tonne bomb on the house of Hamas leader Salah Shehada, killing him and 14 others, in July 2002. The other prominent leaders assassinated by Israeli security forces include Ismail Shanab on August 21, 2003, and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on March 22, 2004. An earlier Israeli missile attack on Sheikh Yassin, the wheel chair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas in September 2003, only managed to kill innocent civilians. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, who succeeded Yassin, was killed by Israeli forces in April 2004. The Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal is the current supreme leader of the organisation. The important leaders in the occupied territories include Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniya. The latter led Hamas in the PLC elections and is likely to head its team in the government.

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