In this and the next post, I want to cover the origins of the two main terrorist groups (or as they might call themselves, freedom fighters) in the current Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Before we start, a key point to understand is that there are two types of groups.
Nationalists. These groups are driven by the desire to consolidate or create a national society. Their focus is not religious, although that may play a part. Their focus is on pushing for a national goal. They may be in government, or they may be pushing to overthrow an existing government.
Hamas are a nationalist group along with the governments of UAE, Jordan, Sudan and Kuwait. In the Middle East, they typically have flags that feature red, black, green and white stripes which was based on a design by the British. Often there is a triangle on the left side of the flag. Islamist. The second group have a primary allegiance to Islamism. They believe religion should permeate every part of life from how people live, to their businesses to government, military and society. Borders do not constrain their religion. They might be Sunni or Shiite. The biggest force in the Shia Islamist world is Iran. They support many other Islamist groups including Hezbollah.
The originator of Hamas was Ahmed Yassin. His early life is not clear. He was born sometime in the 1920s and his farming family was among the 700,000 who fled Palestine when Israel was formed in 1948. The family fled to Egyptian-controlled Gaza after their town was destroyed to make way for an Israeli city.
We do know that in 1952, he had an accident at the beach which left him a quadriplegic. How the accident occurred is not clear and many versions of the story have been told. Ahmed was a highly intelligent and charismatic young man who was not going to let quadriplegia stop him. He finished school and taught Islamic Studies in a mosque. As Gaza was under Egyptian control, he was offered a scholarship in Cairo to study. There he learned English at the Cairo University.
1967 – 6 Day War
When he returned, he became well known for his preaching and social work amongst the poor in Gaza and the West Bank. His work was humanitarian, and he had no record of violence against authority. His group were a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. In 1967 as tensions rose between Egypt and Israel. Israel carried out a preemptive strike against Egypt, and at the end of the 6 Day War took control of Gaza.
70s Israel v PLO
Israelis promised low-paid work for Palestinians in Gaza by shipping them across the border daily to perform work in Israel. The PLO led by Yassar Arafat was a nationalist group intent on setting up the Palestinian nation. They tried to stop the workers and carried out attacks on these convoys.
The Israelis tried to undermine the PLO by setting up education centres in Gaza to provide a Jewish education to the Palestinians. They also thought that they could attack the nationalist PLO by funding the Islamist groups who were primarily involved in social work. During the 70s they started funding groups like those led by Ahmed Yassin.
80s – Resistance
Gradually, Ahmed came around to the view that Israel was trying to take over the Gaza area by imposing blockades and restrictions on the lives of Palestinians. He began to become more aggressive in the 80s and bought weapons to fight the Israelis. Ahmed was thrown in jail several times but formed the Islamist Resistance Group. Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Resistance Movement”). Hamas joined Arafat’s PLO in resisting the Israeli control of Gaza.
90s – Sever ties with the PLO
The next decade – the 90s – saw the PLO become less militaristic. They cut out the terrorism and Arafat tried to turn them into a political force. The PLO were given partial control of the West Bank and Gaza. While this was happening, Hamas became more radical and started a spate of suicide bombings in Israel. While the PLO was trying to broker a peace deal, Hamas was opposed.
Israel took the attitude that they were all terrorist groups and acted in unison. This was far from the truth. Arafat was told to “put your animals back in the cage.” In reality, the PLO had little control over Hamas. It was a nationalist group (PLO) versus an Islamic group (Hamas). Hamas was gaining popularity in Gaza by distributing food, medicine and items banned or restricted by the Israeli.
1997 – Released from Jail
Finally, after spending 10 of the previous 14 years in prison, Ahmed Yassin was released from prison in 1997 as his health declined. By this stage, he was in his 60s and the combined quadriplegia and confinement had taken their toll. He was almost blind and partially deaf. He had chronic lung and stomach issues. Still defiant, he said he would stop at nothing to regain all Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. He said he did not trust the efforts of the PLO to create a two-state solution. Israel could not be trusted. Hamas continued suicide bombings on the Israeli settlers in Gaza.
2004 – Death of Yassim
On 22 March 2004 Yassim was being wheeled to the mosque by some followers. He was a broken man physically and his days were numbered. Suddenly some Israeli jets and Apache Attack Helicopters appeared. They fired three rockets at Yassim as he was pushed down the street. Yassim and nine people in the area were killed. The Israelis had carried out a political assassination after letting him out of jail a few years before because of his declining health. They decided not to wait for nature to take its course.
2006 – Palestinian Elections
In 2006, President Bush convinced Palestinian Leaders to hold elections. In the first election, Hamas had not contested the vote. They decided to stand in the second election although they were only seen as a minority force. The National governing party – Fatah – were considered certain to win. As it turned out, Hamas won.
Hamas joined the government, and the leader became the Prime Minister. They still refused to reject violence and overseas aid was cut off. It was not long before Fatah and Hamas were at war. Hamas quickly defeated Fatah. Israel, Egypt supported by Fatah imposed a blockade on Gaza thinking it would force the residents to overthrow Hamas. It never happened. The blockade only steeled the residents to resist Israel and support the elected government Hamas. Seventeen years later, Hamas still controls Gaza.
Support and Funding Today
Historically, Palestinian expatriates and private donors in the Persian Gulf provided much of the movement’s funding. In addition, some Islamic charities in the West have channeled money to Hamas-backed social service groups, prompting asset freezes by the U.S. Treasury.
For years after the blockade began, Hamas collected revenue by taxing goods moving through a sophisticated network of tunnels that circumvented the Egyptian crossing into Gaza; this brought staples such as food, medicine, and cheap gas for electricity production into the territory, as well as construction materials, cash, and arms. After Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took power in 2013, Cairo became hostile toward Hamas, which it saw as an extension of its chief domestic rival, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian army shut down most of the tunnels breaching its territory while it waged a counter terrorism campaign against a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State on its side of the border, on the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt began to allow some commercial goods to enter Gaza through its Salah al-Din border crossing in 2018. As of 2021, Hamas reportedly collected upward of $12 million per month from taxes on Egyptian goods imported into Gaza.
Today, Iran is one of Hamas’s biggest benefactors, contributing funds, weapons, and training. Though Iran and Hamas briefly fell out after backing opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, Iran currently provides some $100 million annually to Hamas, PIJ, and other Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. Iran was quick to praise Hamas’s assault on Israel in late 2023 and pledge its continuing support for the Palestinian group.
Turkey has been another stalwart backer of Hamas—and a critic of Israel—following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power in 2002. Though Ankara insists it only supports Hamas politically, it has been accused of funding Hamas’s terrorism, including through aid diverted from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.
The question still unanswered is why did Hamas attack? What were they trying to achieve? One of the leaders of Hamas said in an interview, the world was slowly forgetting Gaza. They needed to raise the temperature and get it back on the radar of the world political powers. They also hoped it would bring other Arab nations into the battle. To date, nobody has stepped forward to help.
Israel is at war with a group formed to provide charity work to Palestinians and at one time, funded by Israel. They became militaristic after Israel invaded Gaza. Israel let the leader out of prison, then killed him with a rocket attack. This is too fantastic for fiction.
I have to acknowledge Matt Bevan and the brilliant ABC Podcast “If you’re listening” from where much of this information came. Brilliant podcast and well worth following.