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What is Hamas, how it rose to power & its role in Israel-Palestine conflict

This week, Hamas began rocket attacks targeting Ashkelon, an Israeli city close to the Gaza Strip, and Tel Aviv, claiming five lives. Here’s a look at the history of Hamas.

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New Delhi: Tensions between Israel and Palestine peaked this week as Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes kept the world on tenterhooks, taking it to the brink of a full-fledged war even as the battle with Covid-19 rages on.

The rocket attacks by Hamas began Monday targeting Ashkelon, an Israeli city close to the Gaza Strip, and Tel Aviv, claiming five lives, including an Indian woman working in Israel.

The attack began after tensions rose over forced evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem. Israel hit back hard as it launched a barrage of airstrikes that have killed over 35 Palestinians.

The strikes also resulted in the killing of several top commanders of Hamas, which was announced by the militant group itself as well as by Israel.

As the clash continues, here is a look at Hamas, or Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), a militant outfit that was co-founded by Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin from Ashkelon.

Also read: At least 40 dead as Israel, Hamas step up attacks in most serious escalation since 2014

When Hamas, an Arabic word for ‘zeal’, emerged from ‘Islamic Compound’

It was in June 1989 that Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, born in 1938 in Ashkelon — then known as Al Majdel — first admitted that he was the ‘Father’ of the Hamas movement after he and his son were tortured by Israeli soldiers during an interrogation in prison, according to Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement, written by Palestinian journalist Zaki Chehab.

Chehab, who had gained significant access to some of the key players in Hamas, also wrote how despite being a quadriplegic, Yassin rose to become the militant group’s spiritual leader from being an ordinary Arabic language elementary school teacher, whom the Palestinians greatly admired.

The journey started in 1978, when Yassin established an organisation with massive followers, which came to be known as ‘Islamic Compound’. He also garnered support and collaborated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups across Gaza, Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem.

As strife between Israel and Palestine continued to soar as the latter resorted to the First Intifada, or uprising, in December 1987, Hamas as an organisation led by Sunni-Islamic fundamentalists, began to take shape.

Yassin, now an undisputed leader of the Palestinian cause collaborated with others like Sheikh Salah Shehada from Islamic University in Gaza, Issa Al Nasshaar, an engineer from Rafiah and Abdul Fattah Dokhan, a headmaster among others to create Hamas. Their call was “Right! Force! Freedom”, wrote Chehab.

Back then Hamas could gain immediate and immense popularity within the protesting Palestinians because it was able to fill the political space left by Yaseer Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) which “moved towards the path of a diplomatic settlement”, journalist Anton La Guardia wrote in his book, Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians.

“With the first Intifada at its height in 1988, the PLO tried to capitalise on the rebellion by declaring independence, recognising Israel’s right to exist and ‘renouncing’ terrorism,” La Guardia wrote.

But, according to the book, Hamas said, “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad (holy war)”.

La Guardia also noted how Hamas “imported” the tactics from Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group. He also added that Hamas believes in hitting civilian targets and not military installations.

While Yassin was assassinated in 2004 in an Israeli attack, the movement he started continued in full force with the succession of his deputy Abdel Aziz Ali Abdul Majid al-Rantisi, also known as the ‘Lion of Palestine’.

Currently, Hamas is led by Ismail Abdel Salam Ahmed Haniyeh, who heads the group’s political wing and is regarded to be a “close aide” of Yassin, which allowed him to climb the ranks in a short span of time.

Also read: Al-Aqsa violence: Why Palestinians & Jews have often clashed at this holy site in Jerusalem

Will Israel ever be able to eliminate Hamas?

With tensions continuing unabated in the last couple of weeks, many have said that Hamas is now trying to start a “Third Intifada”.

According to New York Times‘ Thomas L. Friedman, if the present crisis “turns into another Intifada, with the street imposing its will on their leaderships, this earthquake will shake Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt and the Abraham Accords”.

However, it is unlikely that Hamas will be successful to start one this time because unlike the Second Intifada of 2000, there is “no comparable unifying force today”, which existed back then due to Arafat and his Fatah movement’s domination of the Palestinian Authority that was then “unchallenged”.

Today, in its role as the government of Gaza — a role that Hamas took over in 2007 as a result of infighting in Gaza city — and as a leading Palestinian resistance group to Israel, the group faces numerous challenges.

“As the de facto ruler of Gaza since 2007, Hamas has succeeded in keeping power despite Israeli, U.S., and international pressure, as well as repeated Israeli military incursions. The isolation, however, prevents Gaza from growing economically and keeps the humanitarian situation dire. As a result, Hamas is unable to provide economic growth or other benefits to Gazans and demonstrate it is an effective leader of the Palestinians,” said Daniel L. Byman, professor, Georgetown University and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy (Centre for Middle East Policy) at Brookings, in a report.

Byman added that while Hamas will continue with the rocket launches and Israel will continue to retaliate hard, Egypt and other neighbours along with the US may succeed in diffusing the situation and “then we’ll wait for the next round”.

But the question remains on whether Israel will ever be successful in completely eliminating Hamas, which remains its primary goal.

According to Chehab, “Despite numerous arrests, the Israelis never succeeded in dismantling the organisation. A new leadership will emerge, and it would be back to the business of issuing statements and once more engaging the Israelis by attacking their army posts and patrols.”

The solution to ending the present crisis now probably lies in whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas takes Palestine to polls that were initially scheduled for 22 May, the first in more than 15 years, but now stand postponed. Hamas called the postponement a “coup”.

This was the first time when rivals, Fatah and Hamas, had reached a truce to hold legislative elections on 22 May and Presidential vote on 31 July.

Also read: How Hashemite Kingdom emerged from Ottoman, British rule to modern-day Jordan


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