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What is Hamas and does the group speak for Palestine?

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Israel has declared war on the Islamist extremist group known as Hamas after a surprise attack that began on Saturday claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis. While conflict between Israel and Palestine is nothing new, this attack has been characterized as unprecedented in terms of both organization and brutality by media outlets and defense officials alike.

Hamas is the ruling party of the Gaza Strip – one of the two occupied Palestinian territories in Israel. But while a great deal of internet discourse thus far has painted this conflict as between Israel and Palestine as a whole, the reality is more complex than that.

Hamas rules over the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, while a separate and more secular Palestinian political party known as Fatah, an inverted Arabic acronym for the “Palestine National Liberation Movement,” rules over the remaining 2.7 million living in the West Bank. Technically speaking, Fatah is a political party within the Palestinian Authority that is recognized as the ruling body of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority is the internationally recognized Palestinian government, Fatah is the political party in charge of that government, and Hamas is an extremist organization outside that organizational hierarchy.

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What is Hamas and how did they rise to power?

Hamas militants (Israeli Defence Force)

Founded in 1987, Hamas is a Sunni Islamist extremist organization that rules over the Gaza Strip and has significant political power within Palestinian territories. In 1993, Hamas carried out its first suicide bombing and was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 1997. Other countries, including the EU members, have also designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

In 2006, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas candidates securing some 44.45% of the popular vote and Fatah candidates winning 41.43%. After efforts to hammer out a power-sharing agreement sputtered, factional fighting between Palestinians began in what is now known as the Battle of Gaza. After days of fighting and hundreds killed, Hamas forced Fatah out of the Gaza Strip and has not held another election since.

Formal reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah started and failed no fewer than seven times between 2006 and 2018, with the Hamas-led Gaza Strip engaging in three armed conflicts with Israel during the same time.

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The Palestinean people are not a monolith

Woman on a Free Palestine Protest in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Michael Künne, PRESSCOV picture agency via Wikimedia Commons)

Although tensions between these Palestinian groups have lessened in recent years, there remain significant differences in both the ideologies and methodologies employed by their members. Hamas, is an inherently Islamist organization that adheres to a strictly enforced religious law, while Fatah is considered more secular. Likewise, Hamas believes the only solution to Israeli occupation is armed conflict, while Fatah prefers negotiation. However, it’s important to understand that Fatah’s preference for diplomacy should not be seen as tacit support for Israeli policies toward Palestine, as Fatah’s leadership is open about its disdain for what they see as Israel’s repressive policy decisions.

To that point, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called on the United Nations to curtail Israel’s military operations against the Gaza Strip and has expressed solidarity with the civilians being affected by the ongoing fighting. The Palestinian Authority has not condemned Hamas’ attack, but thus far, does not appear to have been involved in its execution.

Some Western analysts have gone so far as to suggest that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority find themselves on very dangerous footing due to Hamas’ offensive. One could argue that Hamas does not seek to remove the boot of Israeli oppression from Palestine’s neck, but rather, simply replace it with its own. Any success in this conflict would strengthen Hamas’ hand and potentially undermine the future security of Fatah, but siding with Israel – even with vague statements – could undermine Fatah’s credibility among its own people, who would see such an act as siding with Israel against them.

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What is the Gaza Strip?

The Gaza Strip is shown in yellow. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Gaza Strip is a 25-mile long, six-mile-wide Palestinian enclave bordered by Israel to the North, Egypt to the South, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Surrounded by walls and fences constructed by Israeli occupying forces, the Gaza Strip is home to some 2.3 million people and is among the most densely populated territories in the world.

In 2007, a year after Hamas’ victory in Gaza’s legislative elections, Israel enacted a number of policies aimed at isolating the Gaza Strip and its new extremist government; these included strict restrictions on people and even goods entering or exiting the territory. Israel, as a result, has been criticized by members of the international community. Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization accused Israel of turning the densely packed territory into an “open-air prison.”

While several independent organizations consider Human Rights Watch credible, it is important to note that the group has also been accused of selection bias at best and “hostility and hypocrisy” at worst by pro-Israeli groups. This is a running theme throughout a great deal of discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine as both groups have historic claims over the land (with Israel’s dating back further, but Palestine’s dominating modern history), and both groups likewise being subject to grave human rights abuses, often at the hands of one another.

For modern Palestineans, this conflict began in 1948 with the establishment of the nation of Israel – which included the forced relocation of Palestinians from their homes. But to the people of Israel, the Arab world began this blood feud in 722 BCE, when the Jewish population was forced out of their homes by invading Assyrians, leading to centuries of repression and genocide for the stateless people that culminated in the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust of World War II.

And therein lies an example of the sheer complexity of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. Contemporary discourse is dominated by social media and news headlines, which have a habit of robbing complex topics of their nuance in favor of succinct “hot takes” and highly meme-able messages. However, conflict is rarely as simple as it’s presented online, and few conflicts better reflect the quagmire of intertwined human nature and geopolitics quite like the fight between Israel and Palestine.

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Does Hamas speak for Palestine?

Hamas militants (Israeli Defence Force)

It’s important to understand the distinction between Hamas – the governing party of the Gaza Strip – and the civilians who live under Hamas’ rule. For many Palestinians, Hamas represents the rock and Israel the hard place they now find themselves stuck between.

A poll conducted in June 2023 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) showed that about half of the Palestinian population in both Gaza and the West Bank politically supports Hamas despite the group’s restrictive adherence to the Sharia-based Palestinian Basic Law.

There is evidence to suggest that this support may be based on the repressive measures enacted by Israel, rather than on confidence in Hamas and its standing leadership, however. According to a 2021 report from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, there are credible reports of a wide variety of human rights violations enacted by Israeli forces against the people of Palestine spanning years.

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; arbitrary detention, often extraterritorial detention of Palestinians from the occupied territories in Israel; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the freedom of association; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; harassment of nongovernmental organizations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement within the country; violence against asylum seekers and irregular migrants; violence or threats of violence against national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinians from the West Bank,” the State Department’s report states.

The 2023 report shows that 73% of Palestinians believe Hamas-run institutions in the Gaza Strip are corrupt, an increase of 2% over the same poll conducted three months prior. Just shy of 60% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip say they could not criticize Hamas’ authorities without fear of reprisal.

However, despite concern and fear of Hamas leadership, 55% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip believed an armed struggle is the only way to end the Israeli occupation, with only 21% believing negotiation could work. It is worth noting, however, that 21% marks a three-percent increase over the same poll three months prior.

While 38% of Palestinians polled said establishing an independent Palestinian state should be their people’s first priority, 25% highlighted internal corruption as the more pressing issue facing Palestine today. In other words, Palestine is far from a monolith, and Hamas should be seen less as the de facto voice of an oppressed people, and more as an extremist element of an internally fractured Palestine. But extreme as Hamas may be, there’s no denying the group’s influence and allure to those struggling under what they consider to be inhumane Israeli policies. 

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.