In Arabic the word ‘Hamas’ literally means ‘Zeal’ and is also an acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’. Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic organisation, established in 1987 during the first intifada as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring itself part of the Palestinian nationalist movement, but also arguing for the establishment of an Islamic state.Hamas coordinated its efforts as part of the al-Fatah (Palestinian Liberation Movement), which emphasised the common interests of those it saw as belonging to the nation Palestine. Operating primarily in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Hamas has massive popular support, while the official number of members is unknown.Worldwide, Hamas has millions of sympathisers due to the just nature of its cause and the work it does in society.
Hamas is dismissed by much of the Western media as being a purely terrorist organisation intent on stopping progress in the peace process.Reports on Hamas in the West tend to focus on the organisation’s terrorist activities, encouraging the view that Hamas is a group determined to ruin any chance of peace in the Middle East.This assessment falls short of being an accurate description of Hamas, as it does not take in to account the different aspects of the group. Just to analyse the meaning of the word ‘Hamas’ (Islamic Resistance Movement) reveals that the group is involved in resistance against an occupying force, rather than being on the offensive. Hamas seeks to protect the lands and people of Palestine from the occupying forces of Israel. This fact is often overlooked in the Western media and the result is that there is a lack of understanding of the true nature of Hamas. This is dangerous as it does not encourage understanding of the true nature of the Middle East, particularly the true nature of Israeli policies.
Hamas has two wings; a social wing and a military wing. Socially, Hamas organises charitable and educational programmes. The reality for the population Hamas represents, the occupied Palestinian territories, is that the organisation has built an impressive social base. The group takes responsibility for providing and maintaining schools, hospitals, community centres, public assistance programmes
(e.g. food distribution to the needy) and the families of those martyred for Hamas receive regular pensions and other practical and emotional assistance. The massive support this generates in the Palestinian population means that Hamas is a threat to the political authority of the PLO who cannot match their charitable activities. The group is more than an armed organisation, and their goals encompass more than the eradication of Israeli occupation. They have the potential and the expertise to transform themselves in to an effective political organisation should the appropriate circumstances arise.
The military wing of Hamas has two main groups. Al-Mujahadoun Al-Falestinioun (the Palestinian Holy Fighters) carry out armed attacks against zionist targets, mainly in the Northern Gaza Strip. Izz al-Din al-Qassam squads are responsible for most of these attacks. The second wing, Jehaz Aman (Security Section) identifies and punishes Palestinian zionist collaborators and upholds Islamic law in the Palestinian community. In the period between 1987 and 1993 (the first intifada) Hamas was only concerned with tar-getting zionist soldiers and settlements. In 1994, Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Muslims who were worshipping at Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. This proved to be a turning point, as when combined with the daily crimes of humiliation, beatings and shootings, the situation became intolerable for many Palestinians. In April 1994, the first suicide bus bombings took place in Afula and Hedera.
Hamas has proved itself to be able to adapt to new security threats, surviving numerous attempts at removal of its leadership by force. When Israel undertook a policy of targeted assassinations, killing a large number of civilians, many volunteer martyrs offered help to Hamas, ensuring the survival of the organisation. The assassination of the spiritual and political leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, by Israel in 2004 led to collective Arab anger in the Middle East. The assassination highlights the refusal of Israel to accept the political importance of Hamas, despite its massive popularity amongst Palestinians. By assassinating the group’s political leader, Israel further created a feeling in the Middle East that the Palestinians are not fairly represented in the political process. The assassination touched countries across the Middle East, not just the occupied territories.
The role of Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been increasingly under debate since the 1993 Oslo agreement was signed. Oslo curtailed the rise of the Islamist movement somewhat by shifting the balance of power to the pro-peace camp. But, when the peace stalls and there are setbacks, popular support for Hamas grows. Frustration acts as a breeding for terror and aggressive Israeli policies in the 1990s led to increasing Palestinian support for violence against Israeli targets. It seems that whilst so many Palestinians doubt the potential of the peace process and the Israeli leadership to bring about justice, Hamas will have a significant role to play.The two questions that have frequently been asked are whether it is possible to make peace with Hamas, and whether Hamas could be included in a peace settlement. Historically, Hamas has shown a willingness to be pragmatic, basing its decisions on what best serves their needs, rather than sticking to their original goals 100 per cent.
Historic analysis also shows that eliminating Hamas is virtually impossible,as the organisation is such a vital part of Palestinian society. Never the less, the US has placed Hamas on its list of ‘terrorist organisations’, seeing the organisation as an obstacle to peace. The Sharon government in Israel makes no distinction between the political and military wings of Hamas. This outlook is reflected in the reporting of parts of the western media, who prefer to condemn Hamas as a straight forward terrorist organisation, rather than acknowledging the vital social role the group plays and its political sophistication and potential to provide government in a Palestine state.