(Bloomberg) -- What is Hamas? One answer is clear: It’s the Islamist group that for 11 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 grave obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a gang of thugs that seized the Gaza Strip at gunpoint. Others argue it’s a true representative of Palestinians that won credibility with 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 for a decade has governed just in the West Bank, has been Israel’s partner in peace talks. 

The Situation

After showing signs of softening, Hamas has been agitating for conflict with Israel starting in late 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump declared the contested city Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In late March, the group and other political factions began a campaign of protests along the Gaza border that have grown into increasingly violent confrontations with Israeli forces. After a covert Israeli operation in Gaza  went wrong in November, resulting in one Israeli and seven Palestinian deaths, Hamas launched rocket barrages into the Jewish state and Israeli jets struck inside Gaza. In September 2017, Hamas agreed to cede the governing 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 has boycotted since 2015. But the transfer of Gaza from Hamas to the unity government has been put on hold in the face of a disagreement over whether Hamas’s military wing would retain its weapons. In mid-2017, 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 an interim step toward taking over Israel as well. And it continues to embrace armed struggle.

The Background

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 address 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, though his term officially expired in 2009. During the time Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip, it has had four major confrontations with Israel. Hamas has received assistance from Iran and Qatar.

The Argument

Many Palestinians think the militancy of Hamas may one day compel Israel to allow their people full independence. Others worry that Israel will never permit a Palestinian state in the face of that belligerence and that the key to the future is negotiation. Some commentators argue that 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’t ensure that a treaty will hold in Gaza. On the other hand, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which dismissed the changes to the Hamas charter as meaningless, says it won’t deal with any Palestinian government that includes the group. Efforts to make unity governments work have failed repeatedly.

The Reference Shelf

  • Hamas’s 2017 Document of General Principles and Policies and its original 1988 covenant.
  • A Council on Foreign Relations background paper on Hamas and its interactive guide to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
  • The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research tracks opinion on Hamas and other matters.
  • “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror,” a book by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg about his stint in the Israeli army guarding members of Hamas.
  • “The Road to Martyrs’ Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber,” a book exploring the Hamas ideology by Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg.

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