Hamas: History and present

Vendredi 27 Janvier 2006

Hamas is an abbreviation of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Arabic: Islamic Resistance Movement). The acronym corresponds to an Arabic word, meaning "enthusiasm, fire, ardor, fervor, zeal, fanaticism". Its military wing is known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades to commemorate Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the father of modern Arab resistance, killed by the British in 1935. Armed Hamas cells also sometimes refer to themselves as "Students of Ayyash," "Students of the Engineer," or "Yahya Ayyash Units," to commemorate Yahya Ayyash, an early Hamas bomb-maker who was assassinated by Israel in 1996 for designing explosive devices used in operations that killed more than 50 Israelis.

Islamic charities were funded directly and indirectly during the 1970s and 1980s by various states including Saudi Arabia, and were registered and recognized by Israeli military authorities at the time: indeed Israel supported and encouraged Hamas' early growth in an effort to undermine the secular Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat. The grassroots movement concentrated on social issues such as exposing corruption, administration of waqf (trusts) and organizing community projects.

The acronym "Hamas" first appeared in 1987 in a leaflet accusing the Israeli intelligence services of undermining the moral fiber of Palestinian youth as part of their recruitment of what they termed collaborators. The use of violence by Hamas appeared almost contemporaneously with the First Intifada, beginning with the punishment beating of those working with the Israeli government, progressing to attacks against Israeli military targets and moving on to violence aimed at civilians. As its methods have changed over the last thirty years, so has its rhetoric, now effectively claiming that Israeli civilians are "military targets" by virtue of living in a state with a military draft.

According to the semi-official Hamas biography "Truth and existence," Hamas evolved through four main stages:

1. 1967-1976: Construction of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip in the face of "oppressive Israeli rule";

2. 1976-1981: Geographical expansion through participation in professional associations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and institution building, notably al-Mujamma` al-islami, al-Jam`iyya al-islamiyya, and the Islamic University in Gaza;

3. 1981-1987: Political influence through establishment of the mechanisms of action and preparation for armed struggle;

4. 1987: Founding of Hamas as the combatant arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine and the launching of a continuing Jihad.

While this reflects the activities of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the organization in the West Bank developed differently, with less emphasis at the beginning on the creation or control of public institutions. The Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank constituted an integral part of the Jordanian Islamic movement, which for many years had been aligned with the Hashemite regime. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank represented a higher socio-economic profile, consisting of merchants, landowners, and middle-class officials and professionals. By the mid-1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood held a significant portion of the positions in West Bank religious institutions.

On January 26, 2004, senior Hamas official Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi offered a 10-year truce, or hudna, in return for a complete withdrawal by Israel from the territories captured in the Six Day War, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin stated that the group could accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rantissi confirmed that Hamas had come to the conclusion that it was "difficult to liberate all our land at this stage, so we accept a phased liberation." He said the truce could last 10 years, though "not more than 10 years."

On March 22, 2004, Yassin was assassinated in an Israeli missile strike. Rantissi replaced him as the leader of Hamas. On March 28, Rantissi stated in a speech given at the Islamic University of Gaza City that "America declared war against God. Sharon declared war against God, and God declared war against America, Bush and Sharon."

On April 17, 2004, Rantissi was also assassinated in an airstrike by the Israel Defense Forces, five hours after a fatal suicide bombing by Hamas. Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas in Syria, said Hamas should not disclose the name of its next leader in Gaza.

On April 18, 2004, Hamas secretly selected a new leader in the Gaza Strip, fearing he would be killed if his identity were made public.However, Israel believes that the new leader is Mahmoud al-Zahar; the second-in-command, Ismail Haniya; and third-in-command, Sa'id A-Siyam.

As of 2004, Israeli military and intelligence sources believed that the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been significantly weakened by Israeli military operations. Israeli sources have noted that no prominent attacks have been claimed by West Bank-based Hamas members (whereas bombings by the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades continued), even though the Hamas leadership had reputedly ordered an escalation of suicide attacks after the assassinations of Yassin and Rantissi. The West Bank has been under increased Israeli military control since Operation Defensive Shield was launched in April 2002, which severely limited the mobility and organization of the remaining Hamas membership.

In the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, Hamas is generally seen as a major force, rivalling Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

In 2004, in a prelude to the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces carried out a number of military attacks on Gaza cities and refugees camps, seeking to draw out and kill Hamas-affiliated gunmen. Awareness of high casualties during such incursions has led the Hamas leadership to instruct its activists to avoid putting themselves needlessly in the line of fire.

In September 2004, Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon said that Israel would "deal with ... those who support terrorism," including those in "terror command posts in Damascus." On September 26, 2004, Hamas guerrilla leader Izz El-Deen Sheikh Khalil was assassinated by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria. Khalil was described variously as "mid-level," "senior," a "distinguished member," and "believed to be in charge of the group's military wing outside the Palestinian territories."

Although the Israeli government offered no official confirmation, anonymous Israeli officials acknowledged responsibility for the attack. In a statement released in Gaza, Hamas threatened to target Israelis abroad in retaliation.

On 12 September 2005 Israeli soldiers withdrew from the Gaza Strip and declared an official end to Israeli military rule in Gaza, although since Israel still retains control of the airspace and sea the Palestinan Authority argues the occupation is on-going.

Hamas claimed that the withdrawal was a victory for their armed struggle and pledged to liberate all Palestinian land. Israel had previously evacuated and dismantled Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas guerrillas, fighters from other factions and Palestinian civilians streamed into the evacuated and dismantled settlements and raised Palestinian and Hamas flags and scavenged in the rubble.

On 24 September 2005, a transport carrying Hamas rockets apparently exploded during one of the group's parades through Gaza, killing civilian spectators. Hamas claimed the parade had been attacked by an Israeli airstrike, and retaliated by firing Qassam rockets at Israel. The Palestinian Authority and Israel both denounced Hamas's claim as false. The P.A. demanded that Hamas end its use of those weapons.

In January 2006, Hamas hired a media consultant to improve and soften its image in the West.

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