The Hidden History of Hamas

The Hidden History of Hamas

The development of Hamas, in many ways, mirrors the broader history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

More broadly, Israel came to view religious groups like Hamas’ predecessor as harmless, regarding them as effective counterweights against their secular nationalist rival, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. As an early example of “blowback,” Avner Cohen, an advisor to the Israeli commander of the Gaza Strip, described Hamas as a “golem” in 1984, implying that the group resembled the creature from Jewish folklore that is created to help the Jewish community, but often ends up threatening its creator. Years later, Arafat would level a similar accusation, stating, “Hamas is a creature of Israel.” claiming the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, admitted that supporting Hamas had been a regrettable strategic error.

The Intifadas and the Rise of Hamas

In 1987, the outbreak of the First Intifada changed everything. The first grass-roots revolt by ordinary Palestinians attempting to “shake off” a twenty-year Israeli military occupation. The Intifada entailed protests, strikes, boycotts, and stone-throwing at Israeli soldiers. Hamas, an acronym for The Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded the same month, emerging directly out of Yassin’s al-Mujamma charity. Offering a religious alternative to the secular PLO, Hamas sought to assume the Intifada’s leadership. Despite Hamas’ hyperbolic rhetoric (their founding charter called for the annihilation of Israel), Yassin indicated an initial willingness to negotiate, but under the condition that Israel first “acknowledge the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and right of return to their land.” Israel snubbed the effort and continued to suppress the protests.

The First Intifada resulted in 1,200 Palestinians dead, 15,000 imprisoned, and over 130,000 injured—many resulting from an Israeli government policy of deliberately breaking the bones of protestors. During the same period, 180 Israelis were also killed. Witnessing the brutal suppression of these largely non-violent, popular uprisings would radicalize Hamas’ view of the conflict and see the group embark on its descent into violence.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, representing a tentative, partial peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, formally ended the First Intifada. Extremists from both sides opposed these overtures to peace. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader who had signed the Accords, would himself be assassinated within two years by an Israeli right-wing extremist. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, displaying early signs of its intransigence, refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence. While the group had conducted its first terrorist suicide bombing earlier that year, Hamas leaders nevertheless expressed some ambivalence about targeting Israeli civilians. This changed with the 1994 Hebron Mosque Massacre—an act carried out by another Israeli extremist attempting to sabotage the Oslo Accords.

Baruch Goldstein, a U.S.-born settler and follower of the radical Zionist political party, Kach, had donned his Israeli military uniform and killed twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers at the Ramadan nightly prayer, wounding 125 more. Israel’s government quickly condemned the attack and banned Kach, designating it a terrorist organization. Five years later, the government would also dismantle the shrine that had been erected around Goldstein’s grave and which had been consecrated as an object of veneration and pilgrimage by Jewish extremists. In stark contrast, and as evidence of the creeping radicalization of successive Israeli governments towards the far right, Israel’s current Minister for National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, displayed a portrait of Goldstein in his living room until as late as 2020, only removing it ahead of his foray into Israeli politics. In retaliation for Goldstein’s massacre, Hamas embarked on a campaign of deadly terrorist suicide bombings, indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians throughout the late 90s. Unsurprisingly, the group was quickly designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 1997, with other Western countries following shortly thereafter.

The cycle of violence and counter-violence continued unabated throughout the Second Intifada, sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque. A right-wing politician who would go on to become Israel’s next Prime Minister, Sharon was widely reviled by Palestinians for his brutal military involvement in the 1953 Qibya Massacre and the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacres. The Second Intifada proved far deadlier for both sides, resulting in 4,200 deaths, but crucially, 25 percent of these casualties were now Israelis—a toll largely attributable to the deadly new strategy of suicide and rocket attacks employed by groups like Hamas. Israel also targeted Hamas’ leadership during the Intifada, particularly for its support of suicide bombings. Reinforcing the role of visual politics in the conflict, the asymmetry of an Apache helicopter gunship firing Hellfire missiles and killing Yassin—a frail, partially blind, wheelchair-bound quadriplegic—in 2004 emerged as one of the enduring images of this period.

Hamas in Power

The violence subsided in 2005, followed by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, including the dismantling of its illegal settlements there. Hamas emerged from the Intifada claiming victory, presenting “the liberation of Gaza” as a complete vindication of its strategy of armed struggle, claiming “four years of resistance surpassed 10 years of bargaining.” Its surprise victory in the 2006 elections confirmed the group’s popular support amongst the Palestinian public, mainly attributable to its decades-long investment in charitable works and perceived lack of corruption. However, Hamas’ electoral mandate was never accepted by Israel or Western powers, who backed the rival Fatah party. A violent power struggle ensued in which Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, who then continued to administer the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In response to Hamas’ takeover, Israel blockaded Gaza, ravaging its economy.

In power, Hamas attempted to moderate its position by abandoning suicide bombings and making occasional half-hearted overtures to Israel. In 2008, the group “offered a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, a truce of ten years as a proof of recognition [of the state of Israel].” It also sought to focus its attention on governance despite the dire economic conditions resulting from the blockade and the decision of Western governments to withhold financial assistance. The crisis was partly alleviated by building a black-market tunnel economy with Egypt and support from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. Netanyahu has, in recent weeks, been criticized for his central role in propping up Hamas by allowing it to receive funding from Qatar. Netanyahu had reportedly defended this policy back in 2019, arguing that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy—to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” The quote proved revelatory in other ways, too, confirming Netanyahu’s opposition to any semblance of Palestinian statehood. 

In power, Hamas was an unmitigated disaster for the Gazan Palestinians. Not only was the group an abject failure in terms of governance, but Hamas also remained zealously committed to its struggle against Israel. Their counterproductive policy of intermittently firing barrages of indiscriminate rockets and mortars across the border only seemed to invite Israel’s disproportionate responses, which often followed a by now depressingly familiar pattern of collective punishment in large-scale military operations, such as Operation Cast Lead (2008), Operation Pillar of Defence (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). Between 2008 and 2023, before the recent hostilities began, 6,400 Palestinians were killed by Israel, the vast majority in Gaza. In contrast, during the same period, 300 Israelis also lost their lives to Palestinian violence.

Life in the Palestinian territories grew progressively worse in other ways, too, through an utterly dehumanizing security regime of checkpoints, sieges, arrests, house demolitions, and mass incarceration. Over 155,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli military or settler violence during this period. However, 60 percent of these casualties originated in the West Bank, which the Palestinian Authority administered and had nothing to do with Hamas. This period also witnessed the ongoing annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, which had more than quadrupled by 2023, numbering close to 300 and housing around 700,000 settlers.

In an attempt to court international opinion, Hamas appeared to tone down its rhetoric in recent years. Its revised manifesto in 2017 endorsed the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 lines—a tacit acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. It also differentiated between Jews and Zionists, claiming its fight was only with the latter, eschewing the anti-Semitic language in its original founding document. This illusion was shattered on October 7. Many commentators have pointed to the incipient normalization in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which threatened Hamas—and perhaps its current sponsor, Iran—as the most likely explanation for the sudden escalation in violence that attempted to derail the rapprochement. Whatever the geopolitical reasons for the recent conflagration, what is certain is that all actors are likely to emerge from this watershed moment more radicalized than ever, perhaps for a generation to come.

Akil N. Awan is an Associate Professor in Modern History and Director of the Conflict, Violence, and Terrorism Research Centre (CVTRC) at Royal Holloway University of London. He has served in an advisory capacity to the United Nations, UNDP, UK Home Office, the UK Foreign Office, House of Lords, the U.S. State Dept., the U.S. Defense Dept., the U.S. Military, Council of Europe, NATO and the OSCE. He is the Founder and Chair of the Political Science Association’s Specialist Group on Political Violence & Terrorism. He has authored and edited several books, including Radicalisation and Media: Terrorism and Connectivity in the New Media Ecology (2011, Routledge), Jihadism Transformed: al-Qaeda and Islamic State’s Global Battle of Ideas (2016, Hurst/Oxford University Press), The Crusades in the Modern World (2019, Routledge), and Radicalisation in Global and Comparative Perspective (2023, Hurst/Oxford University Press). He is on X: @Akil_N_Awan.