The gruesome terror attacks in southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,400 people, and the weeks of Israeli airstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip in retaliation have brought global attention to the Islamic Resistance Movement, commonly known as Hamas by its Arabic acronym. Regardless of whether the Israeli military eventually succeeds in wiping out Hamas or not, this group, as a part of the pan-Islamic liberation movement, will continue to be the leading Palestinian advocate for unyielding war with Israel.
Hamas emerged on the political stage during the early days of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. It served as an activist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in the late 1920s. Challenging the dominance of secular nationalists represented by Fatah, the core faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat, Hamas sought to direct the Palestinian revolt based on its vision of an all-Islamic Palestine to be realised through the sacred struggle of jihad. In the subsequent decade, with the onset of the US-mediated Oslo peace process, Hamas gained strength partly due to its unwavering opposition to the idea of coexistence with the Jewish state and, to a greater extent, its extensive social infrastructure developed while working to establish an Islamic moral order.
Adhering to its rejectionist line, Hamas unleashed a wave of suicide attacks inside Israel to disrupt the accommodation process and undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA), created as part of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993. Subsequently, as the Oslo process faltered due to contentious issues related to the return of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, and the status of Jerusalem, the Fatah-dominated PA faced a progressive decline in popular support. As the fragile Oslo arrangement collapsed in the wake of the second intifada in 2001, Hamas took the lead in organising violent Palestinian resistance, posing a formidable challenge to the internally divided Fatah after the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004. Fatah, which dominated the Palestinian national movement for several decades, lost to its rival, Hamas, in the 2006 parliamentary elections, securing only 32% of votes.
Unable to come to terms with the loss of political dominance, Fatah, with the support of Israel, the US, and the European Union, made systematic attempts to hinder Hamas’ integration into the PA. The intense factional rivalry finally ended with the territorial and political division of the PA into two separate entities: Fatahland and Hamastan. While Fatah continued to rule over the West Bank under President Mahmoud Abbas since 2005, Hamas consolidated its control over the Gaza Strip after its forcible takeover in June 2007.
Despite the non-recognition of its rule in Gaza and repeated Israeli incursions, Hamas has not renounced jihad as a means of resisting Israel. It is also willing to annul its 1988 Charter, which denies Israel’s right to exist. For Hamas, Palestine is a religious issue that defies a political settlement, and any negotiations over Palestine amount to treason. Its Charter describes Palestine as a religious trust, or waqf, that should remain under Muslim control for eternity. It considers the Jewish state on Palestinian territory as an absurdity that will be inevitably destroyed. The destruction of Israel will be accomplished by spreading the spirit of jihad. Hamas has granted religious sanctity to its campaign for Israel’s extermination.
With its loosely organised, cell-like structures, networks of underground tunnels, and, most importantly, effective leadership, Hamas has become an integral part of the Palestinian political landscape. So much so that Hamas has emerged as the leading voice of the Palestinian struggle amid Israel’s gradual annexation of Palestinian lands through the expansion of Jewish settlements and the displacement of Palestinian families. Regardless of the effectiveness of the Israeli military operations in neutralising the Hamas terror threat, achieving the long-term security of nearly 10 million Israelis seems uncertain without addressing the core issue of Palestinian statehood. Previous military campaigns have yielded little more than a temporary respite from the cycle of violence.
In addition to the ongoing war with Hamas, the Israeli government should prioritise efforts to engage with Palestinian nationalists in revitalised negotiations for a two-state solution as outlined in the Oslo Accords. This approach not only assists the beleagured PA in regaining credibility and reduces the political relevance of the Islamists but also facilitates the normalisation of Israel’s relations with Arab countries. Ultimately, the conflict revolves around Arab territory, and non-Arab nations such as Persians (Iranians), Turks, and Pakistanis have no business meddling in Arab matters.
(The writer is with the Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies at JNU, New Delhi)
(Published 09 November 2023, 00:50 IST)