An unprecedented surprise attack in southern Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, has led to an increasingly deadly conflict with no resolution in sight.
Hamas launched its coordinated attack on southern Israel on October 7, firing rockets, invading Israeli towns and army bases, killing hundreds of people, many of them civilians, and taking Israelis hostage. Israel has retaliated with airstrikes in Gaza that have also killed hundreds of people, including civilians, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on Hamas, gearing up for a potential ground invasion. More than 1,500 people have died on both sides as of October 9.
Hamas, designated by many nations as a terrorist organization, has been leading armed resistance against Israel for decades and also controls one of the two major political parties in Palestine. Though popular with some segments of Palestinian society, it remains highly divisive in Palestine and has often been at odds with more mainstream Palestinian politicians.
While it has somewhat moderated its militancy since it assumed the responsibility of governing Gaza, it’s not clear what the future holds now that it has shown that it is still willing to risk provoking a major Israeli military operation to achieve its aim of Palestinian self-determination. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has vowed “mighty vengeance” on Hamas, seemingly with the objective of reducing its ranks to a point of impotence.
Israel’s counterattack is intended to show “that it will be punitive partly for the sake of being punitive, and it will be aimed in part at destroying Hamas as an organization,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “It will definitely have an effect on Hamas as an organization, but it’s unclear … how successful it will be.”
Here’s what you need to know about Hamas and its role in the latest eruption of fighting in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What Hamas is and where it came from
Hamas was formed in 1987 as an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group founded in Egypt in the late 1920s. Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (in English, Islamic Resistance Movement), was designed to provide an “Islamic alternative to the nationalist and leftist groups that then dominated the Palestinian scene in resistance to Israel,” Brown said.
It rose to prominence during the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. That uprising formally ended in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, an agreement between Israel and Palestine to lay the groundwork for the formation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, though that was never realized.
In 1997, the US labeled Hamas a terrorist organization following its attacks, including suicide bombings, on Israeli targets. Other countries followed suit, though some, like New Zealand, have created a distinction between Hamas’s political wing and the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, its military division, viewing the former as legal and the latter as a terrorist group. Because the US views the whole group as terrorists, it cannot have direct diplomatic relations with Hamas, meaning any negotiations, including any peace negotiations, the US might want to hold have to be conducted through a third party.
How did Hamas come to power in Gaza?
The group won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 over the secular Fatah movement, which has generally had better relationships with Western actors. Established by the Oslo Accords, the Legislative Council was meant to have authority over all of the occupied Palestinian territory — Gaza, where the current conflict is taking place, as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem — but the 2006 election led to its demise.
The international community refused to recognize the Hamas-led government, and Fatah refused to cede power to Hamas entirely. After the two parties failed to reach a lasting power-sharing agreement, a brief civil war broke out. Hamas defeated Fatah’s forces, and though the group’s democratically elected lawmakers were expelled from the legislative council, it took control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah kept control of the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas continues to support social services and govern 2.3 million people who have been subject to highly restrictive blockades by Israel and Egypt that made the availability of basic goods and services very limited even before Israel’s recent counterattack.
The need to manage millions of people changed Hamas, to some degree: “That responsibility made it contain ‘resistance’ and slow with any Islamic agenda, but it always made clear that this was a temporary outcome,” Brown said. For instance, while Hamas scaled back its aims of destroying Israel in a 2017 proclamation that tempered its rhetoric, it has continued to make clear that it wants to end what it calls a “racist, anti-human and colonial Zionist project” and take back much of the land that currently makes up the Israeli state.
Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel seems to be a gamble that it can one day do so. Brown said that he thinks the strike, which saw somewhere between a few hundred and a couple thousand Hamas militants breach Israeli’s defenses, may have been an attempt by some in Hamas to “break the modus vivendi with Israel that had emerged over the years.” That status quo saw Israel violently contain Palestinian resistance in Gaza for years at comparatively little cost to its own people. Hamas’s assault may have also been a response to the perceived opportunity in Palestinian politics, with rising alienation and radicalization among youth, he said.
Hamas remains a polarizing force in Palestinian society. While available data is limited, some research suggests that if a vote were to be held like the one in 2006, Palestinians would prefer Hamas’s leader to the deeply unpopular leader of the Fatah faction. At the same time, less than a third of Palestinians think the group deserves to represent them.
There has not been an opportunity, however, for elections. As Vox’s Jonathan Guyer explained, “Palestinians living in Gaza must endure an unrepresentative government which imposes some Islamic tenets and implements repressive policies against LGBTQ people and abusive policies against detainees.”
“Palestinians are deeply divided,” Brown said. “Some are members and strong supporters; some are sympathetic; some view it as problematic; some detest it. But most view it as part of the national fabric.”
Hamas’s current political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and other Hamas leaders currently operate out of Qatar because Egypt restricts their movements in and out of Gaza.
Hamas counts Iran as an ally, sharing an opposition to Israel and the United States’ role in the region. As Vox’s Ellen Ioanes reported, Iran has supported the development of Hamas’s rocket, missile, and mortar programs. It has also joined Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militant group based in southern Lebanon, in providing funding, training, and intelligence to Hamas fighters.
But while Hamas has said that Iran supported its October 7 attack on Israel, “Hamas is not Iran’s proxy,” and its leadership and political agenda are distinct, Brown said.
More generally, the question of where Hamas gets its funding is a bit complicated. Some of its money comes from taxes collected on goods smuggled through the Egyptian-Israeli blockade; other income streams include private international donors sympathetic to the group’s cause, and foreign aid, which helps it provide basic governmental services. Beyond Iran, Turkey and Qatar have been suspected of providing financial backing as well.
What Hamas wants
At its core, Hamas wants an independent Palestinian state, one that, according to its 2017 manifesto, would at the very least include the land Palestinians held in 1967, a position Israeli governments have long said is out of the question. It also wants greater political power, both in Palestine and internationally.
“Its ultimate goal is the liberation of all of historic Palestine, but Hamas has declared its willingness to reach a long-term cease-fire with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the creation of a Palestinian state,” Syracuse University Middle Eastern history professor Osamah Khalil told Vox.
Hamas has a long track record of using armed resistance in order to achieve its aims, including conducting violent cross-border raids via tunnels and shooting rockets across the Gaza border. And as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has explained, there’s a series of factors that may have contributed to Hamas’s decision to strike now — essentially, things the group wants to see stopped in the short term.
Those include what the group described as Israeli settlers’ desecration of the al-Aqsa Mosque, a Muslim holy site near sites also holy to Christians and Jews; Israeli settlers’ growing attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank; and a potential security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would harm Palestine’s bid for independence. More broadly, some experts have argued this attack was intended to fundamentally shift how the world approaches Israeli-Palestinian relations — a show of force and strength by Hamas as it seeks to keep the fight for Palestinian independence at the forefront of international discussion.
“Palestinian factions undertake operations like this one to keep the Palestine issue alive and to prevent any outside power from chipping away at the quest for Palestinian sovereignty,” said UCLA Middle Eastern history expert James Gelvin. “This is what Saudi-Israeli normalization threatens to do.” Experts have pointed to the potential Saudi deal, in particular, as a move that would have undercut Palestinians’ fight for statehood by further legitimizing Israel.
Ultimately, Hamas is eager to maintain its own power and to keep the fight for a Palestinian state a chief priority for its allies abroad, including Arab countries like Qatar and Turkey. If Israel is launching brutal military attacks on Gaza and civilians, like those that killed dozens at markets, schools, and hospitals on Monday, it makes it much harder for other Arab countries to normalize their relationship with the country (though it also harms the people Hamas is meant to govern).
As a Hamas spokesperson told Al Jazeera, these attacks were a decisive “message” to other Arab countries that they should not normalize ties with Israel.
Where do Palestine’s other political organizations, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, fit into all of this?
One other thing Hamas wants is for its vision for Palestine to win out over that of its chief rival, Fatah.
Fatah, a reverse acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filistiniya (in English, Palestinian National Liberation Movement), is a secular party started in the 1950s that is also dedicated to establishing an independent Palestinian state.
It’s currently the dominant party of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group of 11 (mostly now defunct) organizations that was created in the 1960s in part to give Palestinians a voice on the world stage. The PLO currently runs the Palestine National Authority (PA), which is a government of semi-autonomous areas in parts of the West Bank.
Fatah’s standing in Palestinian politics has been greatly weakened since its 2006 election loss to Hamas and subsequent infighting in the party. The PA is also presently led by President Mahmoud Abbas — the head of Fatah — and has faced significant scrutiny for failing to hold democratic legislative or presidential elections since 2006. Abbas has taken actions to consolidate his power in the absence of other elected lawmakers, further including reducing checks in the government’s three branches and cracking down on free speech.
Hamas and Fatah differ most notably in their approach to recognizing Israeli statehood and in their approach to advocating for a Palestinian state. Fatah recognizes an Israeli state while Hamas does not. Fatah also supports diplomacy in its quest for an independent Palestinian state, while Hamas supports armed resistance in pursuit of this goal. Previously, Hamas was strongly against the Oslo Peace Accords the PLO struck unilaterally in the 1990s which put a stop to PLO violence alongside an agreement for a two-state solution. That deal also set up the PA, which has attempted and failed to reach multiple peace agreements with Israel.
“Hamas sees the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a corrupt representative of the Palestinian cause and are considered political rivals, which has included fighting between armed elements of both sides in the past,” said Javed Ali, a University of Michigan national security expert.
Support for the PA among Palestinians has dipped in recent years as it has offered limited condemnation and response to Israeli violence, especially ongoing settler violence that has seen Israelis take land by force. The PA has also suffered from weaker, aging leadership — one of Fatah’s founders, Yasser Arafat, led the PA until his death in 2004; Abbas, now 87, has been in charge since 2005.
That has led many Palestinians, especially among the younger generation, to feel that Fatah is out of touch, and it has allowed Hamas to grow its backing among some who support its more aggressive focus on an independent state.