The Appeal of Hamas

Ursula Cliff, Dickson College, 2010

This essay is a response to the self-devised focus question: "What factors account for the appeal and growth of Hamas?" It was submitted as part of the Modern Middle East unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

In 1988, Hamas released its official doctrine. The covenant called the Palestinian people to arms, ‘to have determined will in order to fulfil their role in life...the readiness to sacrifice life and all that is precious for the sake of Allah’ (Hamas 1988: Introduction). The organisation promised the establishment of the historic nation of Palestine, and the destruction of the state of Israel. Hamas (an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, and also Arabic for ‘zeal’) was founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. As an Islamist group, their objective was to unite Muslims under one Islamic state, and eradicate western influences (Isseroff 2004). The group’s appeal to the Palestinian population can be attributed to four primary factors. Hamas originated from a well-established organisation within the Arab world, ensuring support for their actions and beliefs. The group also emerged at a time when there was no strong Palestinian political power within the area, and by channelling the desires of their people, Hamas was able to grow in popularity and prestige. Hamas also presented themselves as a viable alternative to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), both because of their religious principles, and their opposition to negotiations and penchant for violence. As part of their organisation, Hamas also included the provision of essential welfare benefits to the Palestinian people, attracting much of the deprived population.

One important factor that accounts for Hamas’ appeal is their origins. Hamas was an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian wing of which had formed in the Gaza Strip in 1946 (Gunning 2006: 26). After the Six-Day War in 1967, the main front for this organisation was Mujama, which by 1985 had an estimated 2000 members within the Gaza Strip. This group was led by Ahmed Yassin, who would found Hamas 20 years later. Hamas grew out of the desire for the Brotherhood to militarily participate in the Intifada (Isseroff 2004). The Hamas doctrine describes the Muslim Brotherhood as a:

...universal organisation which constitutes the largest Islamic movement in modern times... characterised by its ... complete embrace of all Islamic concepts of all aspects of life’ (Hamas 1988: article 2).

United by their common goal and origins, Hamas had a strong network of support throughout the region and internationally (in parts of Islamic Africa and Asia). This often took the form of financial support – one of Hamas’ biggest benefactors was Iran, which had a like-minded group (Ross 2007:164). The structure and ideology of Hamas was similarly supported. The Middle East had a strong history of organisations such as Hamas, both those which had originated from the Muslim Brotherhood and others which had formed independently. Groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah had proved effective in gaining attention for their causes through the deployment of violent acts (Ibid.: 163). Their arguable success meant they were a more appealing and accepted part of society. The Islamist nature of Hamas also appealed to the more traditional elements within Palestinian society, who ‘turned to the past for solace and meaning’, unable to comprehend the secular and changing society around them (Ibid.).

Another factor that contributed to Hamas’ appeal was the absence of another ruling party which was on-ground, and fully able to understand and appreciate the situation of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. The PLO had been expelled from Lebanon in 1982, and had consequently settled in Tunisia, a considerable distance from the majority of Palestinians (Ross 2007: 155). There was also little support for the Palestinian cause coming from surrounding Arab nations. Egypt had signed a separate peace deal with Israel in 1979, and other Arab nations ‘appeared to be unwilling to exert themselves to help the Palestinians’ (Ibid.). The Palestinian population were ‘disillusioned with the PLO, which although a potent symbol of their nationalist feelings, had not succeeded either militarily or diplomatically in securing Palestinian self-determination’ (Bickerton 1990:181). For many Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, extra-judicial killings, demolition of homes and facilities, curfews, mass detentions, deportations and humiliation were a part of everyday life, and unemployment had climbed as high as an estimated 50% (Isseroff 2008). Riots and violence rose, and on the 6 December 1987, the first Intifada broke out. In contrast to the PLO, Hamas was based in the Gaza Strip (Ibid.) and were therefore in a position to immediately engage. In the group’s charter, released in the second year of the Intifada, it also seemed that they understood, and were sympathetic to, the suffering of their people:

‘Our enemy ... has deprived people of their homeland and properties, pursued them in their places of exile and gathering, breaking bones, shooting at women, children and old people... [and] opened detention camps where thousands and thousands of people are thrown and kept under sub-human conditions... [They have undertaken] the demolition of houses, rendering children orphans, meting cruel sentences against thousands of young people...’ (Hamas 1988: article 20).

Hamas also provided a solution of sorts: ‘The enemy should be faced by the people as a single body’ (Ibid.). Although the PLO became more closely involved as the Intifada ensued, within a year of its beginning the Intifada was being led by Islamist groups, most prominently Hamas (Ross 2007: 159). Hamas changed the nature of the uprising, shifting the mostly passive resistance, which proved economically detrimental and self-defeating to the Palestinians, into acts of aggressive defiance – armed attacks, kidnappings and arson (Rudolph 2008: 37). In this way, Hamas channelled the energy and verve of the people, echoing their sentiments, and increasing both the effectiveness and longevity of the uprising: ‘For the first time, Israel was in a battle it could not win’ (Ross 2007:160). Hamas offered, by way of organised resistance, a way to bring about real change in the treatment of Palestinians in occupied territories, and draw worldwide attention again back to the problems of the Palestinian people – something the PLO had failed to achieve.

During this time, Hamas proved particularly enticing for youth and for incarcerated Palestinian demonstrators. Prison cells became fertile ground for the Islamists, who passed their ideologies onto the imprisoned Palestinian civilians, of which there were an estimated 120,000 throughout the duration of the uprising (Isseroff 2008). At the beginning of the Intifada there was also a whole generation of youth who had grown up under Israeli occupation. In 1987, Hamas established a separate wing of its organisation, entitled the Al Ahdath, which primarily consisted of young men under 18 years old (Chehab 2007: 30). It helped to ensure ‘maximum participation by the public’, as well as the continuation of Hamas ideology in the new generation (Ibid.). As one historian notes, ‘due to its popularity, Hamas did not have difficulty with public compliance’ (Rudolph 2008:87). Hamas was thus able to gain members and rise in popularity through the participation of youth in the Intifada, as well as, ironically, through their incarceration.

A further factor that contributed to the success of Hamas was the strong contrast between them and the PLO leadership, led by Yasser Arafat. One of the fundamental differences between the two organisations was the religiosity of Hamas, in contrast to the secular stance of the PLO (Isseroff 2004). Hamas acted with the slogan: ‘Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, [and] the Koran its constitution’ (Hamas 1988: article 8). The group worked in accordance with the original teachings of the Qur’an, as well as hadith sacred to Sunni Muslims, and the traditional values espoused by Hamas consequently appealed to the religious Palestinian population (Graham-Brown 1991: 222) . By advocating the Palestinian cause on a religious basis, stating ‘Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [Islamic trust] land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgement Day’ (Hamas 1988: article 11), Hamas also made the establishment of Palestine a responsibility for every Muslim, both Palestinians and those from the wider Islamic community. Hamas’ religiosity also meant they gained the support of some important elements within Palestinian society, particularly the imams, who preached incitement against the Israeli government, especially at the time of Hamas’ emergence during the Intifada (Isseroff 2004). It also proved effective when Hamas urged its followers to attack the state of Israel, as they declared the struggle a Jihad, or Holy War, and thus participants and those who died for the purpose were guaranteed a place in heaven (Ibid.). Hamas rejected the PLO on the basis that it was too westernised, ‘left-leaning’ and corrupt (Ross 2007:164).

Another striking difference between Hamas and the PLO is in the policy each held toward the Israelis, and the means by which to establish the Palestinian homeland. In November of 1988, Arafat had indicated the PLO was prepared to negotiate with Israel (Ross 2007: 176). After failed negotiations in Madrid, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met at the White House to sign the Oslo accords in 1993 (Ibid.: 178). Within the Palestinian population, however, there was strong opposition to the accord. They objected that there was no procedure in place for the formation of the state of Palestine; Palestinians were to be held accountable for all acts of violence against Israel, but the Israelis were not reciprocally responsible; all external and security affairs in the Occupied Territories were to be controlled by Israel; and issues such as right of return for Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and water and borders still remained unresolved (Ibid.: 179). For many Palestinians, it seemed as though they had given a lot, and received little in return. As the process began to be implemented, Palestinian disillusionment with the peace process and the PLO resurfaced (Ibid.). Instead of receiving the Palestinian homeland so long promised to them, the people,

...were now living in ever more fragmented communities, separated by heavily patrolled Israeli roads and a constantly growing number of Israeli settlements’ (Ibid.:184).

Hamas very strongly opposed the Oslo peace accords. They conducted their first suicide bombing campaign in opposition to the signing of the Oslo accord, and by 1994, attacks of the same nature became a regular occurrence (Isseroff 2004). Although many Palestinians were in favour of peace, the slow and hesitant process of implementation, and the continual lack of any settlement of issues pertinent to their safety and future had left elements of the population frustrated. The immediacy and tangible damage of the attacks was therefore satisfying (Ross 2007: 183). Added to this were the continuing acts of Israeli ‘state-terrorism’, designated attacks on Palestinian opposition groups, and acts of terror carried out by Israeli citizens, such as the massacre at the Ibrahami mosque in Hebron, which killed 21 Muslims (Ibid.). These acts strengthened the appeal and cause of Hamas, by further justifying its attacks on Israel.

Another factor that contributed to the appeal of Hamas was the social services they provided. Hamas consisted of three wings: the military wing which carried out attacks; the political wing, which distributed information, recruited members and raised funds; and the civilian wing, which built schools, hospitals and mosques, heavily funded by Iranian money. Hamas used around 90% of their annual budget to fund these services. Unlike Fatah, or Christian organisations, which limited their social aid on the basis of affiliation or membership, Hamas provided welfare benefits to all Palestinian citizens. Hamas provided these services pursuant to their policy of reintroducing Islam into every aspect of life. This was inspired by the policy of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strategy was to “‘...fight what it sees as Westernization and corruption of Arab governments by running its own schools, hospitals and other services in order to spread its beliefs”’ (DeFronzo 2007: 334). This provision aided in making the presence of Hamas known to the Palestinian people, as well as acting as a base from which to spread their beliefs and ideologies, as well as recruit new members. This proved especially effective in the provision of educational facilities, as propagated in Hamas’ doctrine:

...teaching the religious duties, comprehensive study of the Koran, the study of the Prophet’s Sunna... is a must so that the fighting Muslim would live knowing his aim, objective and his way in the midst of what is going on around him’ (Hamas 1988: article 16).

The provision of such services was at this time especially important due to the fact that Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were closing down many of these institutions (Ross 2007: 162). As the only group providing these services, Hamas was an attractive organisation to much of the Palestinian population.

In 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in the Palestinian authority legislative elections, uprooting Fatah (Arafat’s former party) as the dominant party (Asser 2009). Today, figures within Hamas still adhere to the group’s early ideologies – the commitment to maintaining an armed struggle against Israel, and refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist, however some have instead called for a two-state solution, indirectly recognising Israel as an independent state (Council on Foreign Relations 2009). Since 1993, Hamas has been responsible for over 350 separate acts of aggression, killing more than 500 people, leading Hamas to be labelled as a terrorist organisation by the EU, Israel and the US (Asser 2009). The appeal of Hamas and its subsequent growth can be attributed to four fundamental aspects. Hamas originated from an organisation firmly established within the Arab world, and consequently had a strong financial, ideological and organisational basis for its self. The absence of a strong political power for the Palestinians at the time of Hamas’ conception also meant there was a space for them, especially as they supported and echoed the needs and desires of the Palestinian people at the time of the first Intifada. Hamas also drew popularity because they were an alternative the PLO, both because of their religiosity, and their firm opposition to the failed Oslo accords. The provision of welfare benefits and social services further ensured Hamas gained the popularity of the people, and had bases from which to spread their ideologies throughout the community. The organisation is now the largest Palestinian Islamist group, and is estimated to have 15,000 members in its military wing, as well as thousands more supporters (Ibid.).

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Literary Sources

Bickerton, Ian J., Pearson, M. N. 1990, The Arab-Israeli Conflict – A History (2nd edn.), Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.
This source, although published a little early to give a completely comprehensive understanding of Hamas’ appeal, gives a comprehensive overview of the events preceding their emergence, particularly the Intifada, and their early actions.

Chehab, Zaki 2007, Inside Hamas – the untold story of militants, martyrs and spies, I.B. Tauris, London.
Zaki presents a highly detailed overview of the history and main figures of Hamas. He draws on interviews with members of Hamas and credible sources. This text is highly informative and mainly objective.

Cobban, Helena 1984, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
This source provides a comprehensive insight into the PLO, including their expulsion from Lebanon, and includes primary sources.

DeFronzo, James 2007, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (3rd edn.), Westview Press, USA.
This source presents a strong overview of contemporary Hamas, including their aims, and relations with other groups of a similar nature. However, the source does not provide an abundance of information of the original appeal and growth of Hamas.

Graham-Brown, Sarah, ‘The Palestinians’, published in Sluglett, Peter, Farouk-Sluglett, Marion (eds.), 1991, The Times guide to the Middle East, Times Books, London.
This text presents information on each major nation of the Middle East. The section on Palestine gives a strong idea about that tensions and feelings the Palestinian people in the late 1980’s, though is quite brief on Hamas.

Greenup, Elizabeth 1988, Conflict in the Middle East, Thomas Nelson, Australia.
Greenup provides a descriptive account of the issues facing the Palestinians in the late 1980’s. She includes useful primary and secondary sources, but the text has little on the appeal of Hamas, being published before their covenant was released.

Gunning, Jeroen 2008, Hamas in politics: democracy, religion, violence, Columbia University Press, New York.
Gunning gives a useful account of the origins of Hamas, and their rise to political power.

Ross, Stewart 2007, The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hodder Education, London.
This text is very useful, clearly demonstrating the background events and undercurrents of the Middle East at the time of Hamas’ emergence and growth, and providing in-depth studies on important figures and areas.

Ringer, Ron 2006 (2nd edn.), Excel HSC Modern History, Pascal Press, NSW
This text provides a brief excerpt on the important elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is very useful for starting research.

Rudolph, Rachael M., ‘The Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine (Hamas): A Successful transition, but will it survive?’ published in Engeland, Annisseh Van, and Rudolph, Rachael M. 2008, From terrorism to politics, Ashgate Publishing Limited, England.
Rudolph provides an in-depth understanding of the evolution of Hamas, which includes a useful account of Hamas’ origins and original aims.

Woolf, Alex 2004, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Arcturus Publishing Ltd, London.
This source is easily comprehensible, and gives a short informative summary of each major event – useful for starting research.

Electronic Sources

Asser, Martin 2009, ‘Hamas ready for bitter urban battle’, viewed 30/10/2010, at <>
This source provides a good understanding of contemporary Hamas, and includes their estimated number of members.

Isseroff, Ami 2004, ‘A History of the Hamas movement’, viewed 22/10/2010, at <>
This source offers a comprehensive and unbiased account of the entire history of Hamas.

Isseroff, Ami 2008, ‘Intifada’, viewed 22/10/2010, at <>
Isseroff provides a detailed account of the First Intifada, and includes statistics and timelines, for easier understanding.

Council on Foreign Relations, 2009, ‘Hamas’, viewed 22/10/2010, at <>
This source offers a brief look at all the important aspects of Hamas – a strong starting point for further research.