History Of Hamas And Israeli Conflict

Hamas Flag

by Imtiaz Popat  

As the Hamas and Israeli war continues, it is important to understand the history and origins of the conflict. Hamas, also spelled Ḥamās, acronym of Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmiyyah, (English Islamic Resistance Movement), is a Palestinian nationalist movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas originated in the late 1970s with activists connected with the Muslim Brotherhood that established a network of charities, clinics, and schools and became active in the territories (the Gaza and West Bank) occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. In Gaza they were active in many mosques, while their activities in the West Bank generally were limited to the universities. The Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in these areas were generally nonviolent, but a number of small groups in the occupied territories began to call for jihad, or holy war, against Israel. In December 1987, at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada (Arabic intifāḍah, “shaking off”) uprising against Israeli occupation. 

Hamas (which also is an Arabic word meaning “zeal”) was established by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious factions of the PLO, and the new organization quickly acquired a broad following. In its 1988 charter, Hamas maintained that Palestine is an Islamic homeland that can never be surrendered to non-Muslims and that waging a holy war to wrest control of Palestine from Israel is a religious duty for Palestinian Muslims. This position brought it into conflict with the PLO, which in 1988 recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas soon began to act independently of other Palestinian organizations, generating animosity between the group and its secular nationalist counterparts. Increasingly violent Hamas attacks on civilian and military targets impelled Israel to arrest a number of Hamas leaders in 1989, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder. In the years that followed, Hamas underwent reorganization to reinforce its command structure and locate key leaders out of Israel’s reach. A political bureau responsible for the organization’s international relations and fundraising was formed in AmmanJordan, electing Khaled Meshaal as its head in 1996, and the group’s armed wing was reconstituted as the ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām Forces.

Jordan expelled Hamas leaders from Amman in 1999, accusing them of having used their Jordanian offices as a command post for military activities in the West Bank and Gaza. In 2001 the political bureau established new headquarters in Damascus, Syria. It moved again in 2012, to Doha, Qatar, after leadership failed to support the Assad government in its crackdown on the Syrian uprising.

From its foundation, Hamas rejected negotiations that would cede any land. The group denounced the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the PLO and, along with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, subsequently intensified its terror campaign using suicide bombers. The PLO and Israel responded with harsh security and punitive measures, although PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, seeking to include Hamas in the political process, appointed Hamas members to leadership positions in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The collapse of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in September 2000 led to an increase in violence that came to be known as the Aqṣā intifada. That conflict was marked by a degree of violence unseen in the first intifada, and Hamas activists further escalated their attacks on Israelis and engaged in a number of suicide bombings in Israel itself.

In the years after the Aqṣā intifada, Hamas began to moderate its views toward the peace process. After more than a decade of rejecting the foundational principles of the PA, Hamas ran in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and subsequently participated in the PA, with indications that it would accept agreements between Israel and the PA. 

Since then, senior Hamas leaders have stated their willingness to support a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. In A Document of General Principles and Policies issued in 2017, the organization acknowledged “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled” as a “formula of national consensus.” But Hamas continued to reject the legitimacy of Israel, and hard-liners within the organization remained strident in their rhetoric. Months after one such hard-liner, Yahya Sinwar, became the local leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip (2017– ), he stated in a roundtable discussion with young Gazans: “Gone is the time in which Hamas discussed recognition of Israel. The discussion now is about when we will wipe out Israel.”

In early 2005 Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a suspension of hostilities as Israel prepared to withdraw troops from some Palestinian territories. After much negotiation, Hamas agreed to the cease-fire, although sporadic violence continued. Later that year Israel unilaterally dismantled settlements in and withdrew troops from the Gaza Strip (see Israel’s disengagement from Gaza).

In the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas won a surprise victory over Fatah, capturing the majority of seats. The two groups eventually formed a coalition government, with Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as prime minister. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah forces in Gaza intensified, however, prompting Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led government and declare a state of emergency in June 2007. Hamas was left in control of the Gaza Strip, while a Fatah-led emergency cabinet had control of the West Bank.In April 2011 Hamas and Fatah officials announced that the two sides had reached a reconciliation agreement in negotiations mediated by Egypt

The agreement, signed in Cairo on May 4, called for the formation of an interim government to organize legislative and presidential elections. After months of negotiations over the leadership of the interim government, the two parties announced in February 2012 that they had selected Abbas for the post of interim president.

Hamas’s relations with the governments of Syria and Iran, two of its primary sources of support, were strained in 2011 when Meshaal and other Hamas figures in Damascus conspicuously avoided expressing support for a crackdown by Syrian armed forces against anti-government protesters inside the country. In early 2012 Hamas leaders left Syria for Egypt and Qatar and Meshaal then publicly declared Hamas’s support for the Syrian opposition. Iranian support for Hamas, which by some estimates had exceeded $200 million a year, was greatly reduced.

The Hamas government in Gaza, still struggling following the cutoff of Iranian aid, was placed under even greater financial strain in 2013 when the administration of Egyptian Pres. Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown and replaced by a military-led interim government hostile to Hamas. The new administration heavily restricted crossings at the border between Gaza and Egypt and shut down most of the smuggling tunnels that had been a major source of tax revenue for Hamas as well as a primary means of supplying a wide variety of goods to the Gaza Strip. By late 2013 Hamas was struggling to pay the wages of public sector employees in  Gaza.

In April 2014 Hamas effectively renounced its governing role in the Gaza Strip by agreeing with Fatah to the formation of a new PA cabinet composed entirely of nonpartisan ministers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the new agreement, accusing Fatah of seeking reconciliation with Hamas at the expense of a possible peace agreement with Israel. The new cabinet was sworn in on June 2 but was left unable to carry out the administration of the Gaza. Hamas continued to administer the area, even forming an interim administrative committee in 2017. Later that year the PA began to take over, but, as it was unable to take full control, it cut its funding for Gaza in 2018 and imposed sanctions. Hamas sought to alleviate the blow through taxation, but the move to tax the already poverty-stricken population was unpopular and led to frequent protests. Funding from Qatar and the easing of some blockade restrictions by Israel brought some relief to Gaza.

Meanwhile, leadership changes in Hamas offered an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran. Yahya Sinwar, a senior figure within the group’s armed wing who in 2017 became leader of the group locally in the Gaza Strip, had been a proponent of maintaining relations with Iran. Haniyeh, who replaced Meshaal as head of the political bureau that same year, repaired diplomatic relations and began making notable appearances in Iran, including at the funeral of Qassem Soleimani in 2020 and the inauguration of Iran’s Pres. Ebrahim Raisi in 2021.

After Hamas took control of the Gaza in 2007, Israel declared the Gaza under Hamas a hostile entity and approved a series of sanctions that included power cuts, heavily restricted imports, and border closures. Hamas attacks on Israel continued, as did Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. After months of negotiations, in June 2008 Israel and Hamas agreed to implement a truce scheduled to last six months; however, the truce was threatened shortly thereafter as each accused the other of violations, which escalated in the last months of the agreement. On December 19 the truce officially expired amid accusations of violations on both sides. Broader hostilities erupted shortly thereafter as Israel, responding to sustained rocket fire, mounted a series of air strikes across the region—among the strongest in years—meant to target Hamas. After a week of air strikes, Israeli forces initiated a ground campaign into the Gaza Strip amid calls from the international community for a cease-fire. Following more than three weeks of hostilities—in which perhaps more than 1,000 were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless—Israel and Hamas each declared a unilateral cease-fire.

Beginning on November 14, 2012, Israel launched a series of air strikes in Gaza in response to an increase in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory over the previous nine months. The head of the ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām Forces, Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, was killed in the initial strike. Hamas retaliated with increasing rocket attacks on Israel, and hostilities continued until Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire agreement on November 21.

In 2014 tensions between Israel and Hamas rose following the disappearance of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. Netanyahu accused Hamas of having abducted the youths, and he vowed not to let the crime go unpunished. 

Israeli security forces launched a massive sweep in the West Bank to search for the missing boys and to crack down on members of Hamas and other militant groups; several hundred Palestinians suspected of having militant ties were arrested, including several leaders of Hamas in the West Bank. On June 30 the boys were found dead in the West Bank, outside of Hebron.

The atmosphere of heightened tension in Gaza led to an increase in rocket attacks on Israel by the PIJ and other Palestinian militants. Those had been relatively infrequent since the 2012 cease-fire, but by late June 2014 rocket launches and Israeli reprisals had become a daily occurrence. 

On June 30, in response to these reprisals, Hamas fired its first rockets into Israel since the cease-fire. On July 8 Israel commenced a large-scale offensive in the Gaza Strip, using aerial bombing, missiles, and mortar fire to destroy a variety of targets that it claimed were associated with militant activity. After more than a week of bombardment failed to halt rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces launched a ground assault to destroy tunnels and other elements of the militants’ infrastructure. In early August Israeli leaders declared that the ground operation had fulfilled its mission, and Israeli troops and tanks pulled back fromGaza. Israeli air strikes continued, as did rocket and mortar attacks on Israel fromGaza.

After agreeing to several short-term cease-fires over the course of the conflict, Israeli and Palestinian leaders reached an open-ended cease-fire in late August. In exchange for the cessation of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israel agreed to loosen restrictions on goods entering the Gaza Strip, expand the fishing zone off the coast, and reduce the size of the security buffer it enforced in areas adjacent to the Israeli border. Despite the high Palestinian death toll—estimated at more than 2,100—and widespread destruction in Gaza, Hamas leaders declared victory, trumpeting their ability to withstand Israeli attacks. A series of border protests in Gaza in 2018, in which demonstrators attempted to cross the border into Israel and sent incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, was met with a violent response by Israel. The situation reached a peak on May 14, when about 40,000 people participated in the protests. Many of the protesters attempted to cross the border at once, and Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing about 60 people and wounding some 2,700 others. The violence continued to escalate, leading to Israeli air strikes and Hamas rocket fire into Israel. 

The fighting lasted several months and ended with a truce in November. Discussions for maintaining peace remained ongoing in the following years—even during periods of escalation—and led to the occasional easing of restrictions on Gaza.

In May 2021 tensions in Jerusalem boiled over and led to the greatest escalation of violence since 2014. After clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters left hundreds injured, Hamas launched rockets into Jerusalem and southern and central Israel, prompting air strikes from Israel in response. After 11 days of fighting, Hamas and Israel reached a cease-fire.

In 2022, as Israel conducted incursions in the West Bank and Gaza to target militants, Hamas refrained from escalating confrontations in and around the Gaza. The 2022 Gaza–Israel clashes lasted from 5 to 7 August 2022.] The Israel Defense Forces(IDF) conducted some 147 airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired approximately 1,100 rockets towards Israel. The operation, ordered by the Prime Minister  and Defense Minister  without prior Cabinet discussion or approval, followed a raid in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in which Israeli forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in that area.] On 6 August, Israel arrested 20 people in the West Bank of whom 19 were members of PIJ] and a further 20 on 7 August according to an unnamed Israeli official.

The initial attack included the targeted killing of Tayseer al-Jabari, a military leader of the group. On the second day, the PIJ commander of the Southern area of the Strip, Khaled Mansour, was also targeted and killed. Islamic Jihad stated that the Israeli bombardments were a ‘declaration of war’ and responded with retaliatory rocket fire towards Israel

The clashes resulted in the death of at least 49 Palestinians, including 17 children, according to the Gaza health ministry. The IDF stated that over a dozen of these deaths, including 12 of the children, were caused by failed PIJ rocket launches.  This was disputed by the father of one of the victims, while other Gaza residents and journalists state they saw the misfires by PIJ and called for an investigation of the misfires.]On 13 August, Haaretz reported that misfires killed 14 civilians, including seven children. Some 20% of rockets fell short and into Gaza. The clashes ended with a truce that was confirmed by both sides on the night of 7 August 2022.

But on October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a coordinated land, sea, and air assault that took Israel by surprise, possibly in retaliation to the Israeli attacks in 2022. At least 1,400 Israelis were reported to have been killed in the attacks—the deadliest day for Israel since its independence—and Israel declared war and Hama took about 200 as prisoners of war.

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