HAMAS today is the largest Palestinian militant Islamist grouping. Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. The word also means “zeal” or “fervour” in Arabic.
Hamas, first shot into international prominence 15 years ago at the beginning of the first intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was the founder and spiritual leader of the group. During his student days in Egypt, Yassin came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the biggest and oldest Islamic political parties in the Arab world. Hamas evolved from the secret cells set up by the Brotherhood in the Occupied Territories.
Palestinians such as Sheikh Yassin who were sympathetic to the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, had involved themselves in charity and social work in the Palestinian refugee camps after the 1967 six-day Israel-Arab war. Under the umbrella of a charity organisation called Da’wah, Hamas built an impressive infrastructure catering to the social, educational, religious and cultural needs of the Palestinian people, most of them refugees living in poverty. Initially, if Israeli accounts are to be believed, the Israeli government did not mind another centre of power emerging in the Occupied Territories to challenge the dominance of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). A former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official has reportedly said that Israel’s support for Hamas “was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative”.
Hamas initially was registered in Israel in 1978 by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin as an Islamic Association, under the name of Al-Mujamma al Islami. American and Israeli officials have indicated that most of the initial funding for the group came from rich conservative Arab states and also, directly and indirectly, from Israel though, no concrete proof has been put forth by the Israeli government that Hamas ever got funding from it.
The stated goal of the organisation from the outset was the setting up of an Islamic government that would rule all over the land that historically belonged to Palestinians though Yassin in his last years gave the impression that he was not averse to the idea of an independent Palestinian state co-existing peacefully with the Jewish state.
Some analysts are of the opinion that the right-wing Israeli government had a vested interest in supporting Hamas. The Israeli establishment had initially calculated that it would be to its advantage if Hamas gained in popularity. The Hamas leadership had pledged to torpedo the Oslo peace accord signed by the Israeli government with the PLO. The rash of suicide bombings by Hamas activists after the Oslo accords had strengthened the hands of the Right in Israeli politics, leading to the rise of leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, sworn enemies of the peace accord.
The Israelis were hoping for a civil war to break out in the Occupied Territories, with Palestinians pitted against Palestinians. In the last couple of years, under Yassin’s moderating influence, Hamas, while being critical of many of the actions of the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat, chose to continue recognising Arafat as the symbol of Palestinian unity and nationhood. On Arafat’s urging, Hamas along with the other radical Islamic organisation, Islamic Jihad, had even announced a unilateral ceasefire in the Occupied Territories last year, to give the prospects for peace a meaningful chance. The new leader of Hamas in the Occupied Territories, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, had explicitly stated two years ago that the main aim of the current Intifada “is the liberation of West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem and nothing more. We haven’t the force to liberate all our land”.
A draft agreement between Hamas and Arafat’s Al Fatah two years ago had stipulated that Hamas would cease attacks inside Israel if the Israeli Army pulled back to the positions it occupied before the beginning of the second Intifada. The Israelis sabotaged the efforts of Arafat to unite the various Palestinian factions, by targeting Hamas activists for assassination and triggering another round of violence. “The Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his own hair and then tries to put it out by hitting it with a hammer. They do more to incite terrorism than curb it,” wrote a former United States State Department counter-terrorism official.
THE popularity of Hamas has been steadily growing among the Palestinian populace as the Jewish state has gone about grabbing more Palestinian land and making a mockery of the peace accord. The abject failure of the Oslo agreement and the failure of self-rule, discredited the secular nationalist parties.
The frugal lifestyle of Hamas leaders is also markedly different from that of the senior functionaries of the PLO. After the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000, in which Hamas has played a prominent role, its popularity has soared. Today, as the popularity of the PLO is dipping, a large section of the Palestinian population is said to be behind Hamas.
The support for the organisation is especially strong in Gaza, where Sheikh Yassin resided. Hamas also has a branch in exile, led by Khaled Meshaal, who has also been designated the head of the organisation. Both Meshaal and Rantissi have been the targets of Israeli assassination bids.