Hamas Explained

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Masked members of the Islamic militant group Hamas in Ramallah

What is Hamas, and how does it operate?

Hamas is the religious-political-military organization at the center of the current showdown between Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). Defined as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union because of its suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, it has nonetheless emerged as a potent and popular challenger to Arafat's own authority.

Hamas opposed the Oslo peace process from the outset because it involved recognizing Israel's existence, and set about trying sabotaging that process by sending waves of suicide bombers into Israeli cities in the mid-1990s. The organization's ultimate goal is to create an Islamic state in all of pre-1948 Palestine, which includes all of Israel. But its short-term objective is to drive the Israelis out of all territories they conquered in June 1967 — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

The organization is best known for the exploits of its military wing, the Izzedine Al Qassam brigades. These operate entirely on a clandestine basis, and are currently believed to include up to 500 young volunteers for suicide missions. They are organized into small, discreet cells with multiple leadership structures that can quickly replace leaders eliminated by the Israelis or arrested by the PA.

But one of the keys to Hamas's popularity is its large-scale welfare arm. Hamas provides educational, medical and other desperately needed welfare services in impoverished West Bank and Gaza towns and refugee camps, creating a marked contrast with the image of corruption and cronyism most Palestinians have of Arafat's administration. The welfare arm also cares for the families of suicide bombers and others who have died fighting the Israelis, making suicide bombing a macabre form of life insurance in impoverished Palestinian communities. The social services performed by Hamas also create a pretext for the massive funding the organization receives from Muslim charities throughout the Persian Gulf and beyond.

In contrast to the large political and welfare arms of Hamas, its smaller rival Islamic Jihad consists entirely of clandestine cells. The organization shares Hamas's opposition to the peace process and its preference for suicide bombings as a tactic, but its entirely underground operation leaves it shaded by the larger Hamas.

How is Hamas different from Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)?

The PLO is an umbrella organization that has been overwhelmingly secular since its inception. Today it remains dominated by the secular nationalists of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. Before Oslo, the PLO's affiliate organizations, which included smaller leftist groups such as the PFLP and DFLP, operated from exile in the Arab world. The PLO's various factions maintained small guerrilla wings that periodically carried out terror attacks against Israeli targets, and also operated illegal underground structures in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas emerged as a direct rival to the secular in PLO in the West Bank and Gaza in 1987. Whereas the Israeli military authorities had banned PLO organizations from operating openly there, it consciously allowed Hamas — whose activities did not at that time include armed actions — to flourish as an alternative to Arafat, who remained Israel's primary enemy at the time. But Hamas's active role in the first intifada led to Israel banning the organization in 1989 and imprisoning its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The Oslo Accord switched things around. Arafat became Israel's partner in peace and the Fatah leadership was brought home to run the Palestinian Authority; Hamas found itself alongside Islamic Jihad and Arafat's erstwhile leftist allies in rejecting the agreement. But by now Hamas was a large, well-established section of Palestinian political society, which Arafat could not simply wish away.

Its opposition to Oslo kept Hamas from challenging Arafat in the 1994 elections for the PA. It did, however, challenge and resoundingly defeat Fatah in many student council elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, there was always dialogue between the PA and Hamas, and periodic uneasy, silent agreements between them. In 1996, Hamas unleashed a wave of deadly bombings that killed 60 Israelis in eight days, prompting Arafat to clamp down heavily — some 1,000 Palestinians were arrested and the PA even ousted Hamas from some of its mosques. Later, the organizations appear to have negotiated a modus vivendi. While Hamas won't abandon terrorist actions against Israel, it has periodically agreed, for example, to refrain from sending suicide bombers into Israel for defined periods. While it refuses to accept the PA as an authority, it does accept Arafat's right to represent the Palestinian people internationally. And it shares his concern to avoid a Palestinian civil war, in which both sides argue Israel would be the real winner.

While the intifada has made Hamas a de facto ally of Fatah and the PA in the day-to-day battles against the Israelis, the Islamist group remains resolutely opposed to any attempt to restore the crippled peace process. Their latest wave of suicide bombings are designed in part to sabotage U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire, and the resulting international pressure on Arafat has set him on a collision course with Hamas.

Why has Arafat not simply eliminated Hamas as demanded by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union?

The complex multilayered leadership structures of Hamas's military arm make it difficult for either the Israelis or Arafat to destroy the organization by eliminating its leadership. But the source of Arafat's difficulty is political — Hamas is now believed to directly represent the political views of one in three Palestinians, and its actions carry the support of an overwhelming majority. Opinion polls find upward of 70 percent of Palestinians currently favor suicide bombings and oppose a cease-fire. Compounding Arafat's crisis is the fact that most of the rank-and-file of his own Fatah and security services regard Hamas as comrades-in-arms against the Israelis. Fatah has publicly challenged Arafat's calls for arrests of Hamas leaders, and his security forces plainly have little enthusiasm for the task — particularly when they're being confronted by thousands of angry demonstrators. Hamas has been the primary beneficiary of the alienation of many Palestinians from the corruption of the PA, the failure of the peace process and of Arafat's declining political authority over the 14 months of the second intifada.