What is Hamas? One answer is clear: It's the Islamist group that for 10 years has ruled the Gaza Strip, an impoverished sliver of Mediterranean coastline between Israel and Egypt that's home to 1.9 million Palestinians. Beyond that, perceptions of the group differ. Some say it's a terrorist group that poses a serious obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a gang of threads that seized the Gaza Strip at gunpoint. Others argue it's a true representative of Palestinians, who were won over by its grassroots charitable work and the perception that it's less corrupt than its rival, the Fatah party. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction, while Fatah, which has been governed just in the West Bank, has been Israel's partner in peace talks.
Hamas called for a third uprising against Israel after U.S. President Donald Trump declared contested Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In 2017, Hamas had showed signs of softening, though not to the point of convincing its detractors that it had meaningfully changed. In September, Hamas agreed to cede the ruling of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, which is charged with administering self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza under various agreements with Israel. The Authority is led by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and a so-called unity government that Hamas had boycotted since 2015. Hamas's concession came after Abbas imposed sanctions that cut civil servant pay and electricity in Gaza. Also, Qatar's financial support for Hamas in July. Four months before the Gaza announcement, Hamas released a manifesto in which, for the first time, it accepted Fatah's goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel next door and suggests such a state would be just like an interim step to take over Israel as well. And it continues to embrace armed struggle. Since to 2014 Gaza-Israel war – which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis and caused mass destruction in Gaza – attacks on Israeli targets have been less frequent.
Hamas is a spinoff of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious, social and political movement. The organization was founded in 1987 amid the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation and later gained notoriety for a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis. It won popularity by establishing a network of charities that addresses poverty as well as health-care and educational needs. Its campaign against corruption in the Palestinian Authority led to its surprise victory in a 2006 election. The year before, Israeli forces had withdrawn from Gaza while maintaining control, with Egypt, over its borders and continuing to patrol in the West Bank, which is of greater strategic and religious importance to Israelis. In 2007, Hamas gained control over Gaza's government in a bloody battle with Fatah. Abbas continued to serve as president of the Palestinian Authority, although his term officially expired in 2009. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, it has had four major confrontations with Israel. Along with financial support from Qatar, Hamas has received assistance from Iran.
Some commentators argue that a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would facilitate peacemaking with Israel. It could give Abbas an answer to Israeli complaints that negotiations are pointless because he can not guarantee that to treaty will hold in Gaza. On the other hand, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who dismissed the changes to the Hamas charter as meaningless, says it will not deal with any Palestinian government that includes the group. Efforts to make unity governments work failed repeatedly in the past. And the last one was threatened by a disagreement over whether Hamas's military wing would retain its weapons. The split among the leaders reflects a division in popular opinion. Many Palestinians think the group's militancy may one day compel Israel to allow their people full independence. Others worry that Israel will never allow Palestinian state in the face of that belligerence.
First published July
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