Who is Hamas? Part I: The Rise to Militancy, 1967

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Who is Hamas? is a three part series exploring the history of the Islamist militant movement in Palestine.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel took control of the Gaza strip from Egypt. Instead of implementing restrictions on Islamic charity groups similar to those put in place by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israel decided to allow the groups to move freely as they pursued the secularist Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) headed by Yasser Arafat. US expert on Islamism and terrorism Matthew Levitt says in his book Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, “…[the] Brotherhood benefited from the Israeli government’s support of non-violent Islamist Palestinian factions, believing these groups would function as a useful counterweight to the secular nationalist Palestinian groups.” Israel’s lax policy on Islamist-oriented charity groups paved the way for the beginnings of Hamas.

Hamas’ spiritual leader and founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, at the time a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, built a charity organisation called Al Mujama Al Islamiya in order to help build mosques, clinics, and schools in the area. Yassin employed dawa, a form of Islamic proselytizing, in order to further the organisation’s grassroots approach to developing an Islamic-oriented civil society and gain support in undermining the PLO’s secularist tendencies.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, co-founder and spiritual leader of Hamas (photo: Archive)

In 1984, Israel received intelligence that Yassin along with his followers had been gathering and storing arms in mosques built by Al Mujama Al Islamiya. The group’s affiliated mosques were raided during which dozens of weapons were found by Israeli soldiers. Yassin was arrested along with many of his followers and the arms were seized. Allegedly, Yassin had told Israel that the weapons were meant to combat Palestinian secularists such as the PLO. He was subsequently released despite calls from an official in charge of religious affairs in Israel to investigate Islamic charities within the strip.

Following the beginning of the first Intifida in December 1987, Yassin along with Mahmoud Al Zahar and others founded Hamas (an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic) as a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot substantiated by article II of the militant Islamist movement’s charter, which specifies, “The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] is one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” According to article IX of the charter, one of the central tenets of Hamas’ existence is “the establishment of the state of Islam”. The charter also begins with a verse from the chapter Al-Imran of the Qur’an followed by a quote of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan Al-Banna, which states, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”

The logo for Hamas (photo: Archive)

The central purpose for the creation of Hamas, as expressed in article XXXVI of its 1988 charter, was to serve as “soldiers” for those who took up the Muslim Brotherhood’s guise of Islam and eradicate the “Zionist enemy” Israel.

Part II of the series is titled Who is Hamas? Part II: The Interim Years, 1989 – 2004 and explores the development of the militant Islamist organisation through to the second Intifida