For all its cruelty and mass murder, the Israeli offensive in Gaza has often moved carefully and slowly.
That’s because Israel’s military and government know that its enemy, Hamas, has widespread popular support in the territory and tens of thousands of armed fighters.
The group, whose name means “Zeal” in Arabic, was voted into leadership in Gaza at the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.
It took 73 of the 132 seats in the parliament.
It runs nurseries, soup kitchens, libraries, sporting clubs, a television channel and a children’s magazine.
Such services meet a need for ordinary Palestinians, who are starved, harassed and murdered by the Israeli occupation.
The formation of the group was linked to the rise of Islamist groups known as the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine was formed in 1946.
From its beginning Hamas has had to transform itself repeatedly, shifting its theory, ideology and politics to be in step with the ordinary Palestinians and maintain popular support.
The group spelled out its aims in the 1988 covenant, written during the First Intifada.
Its political competitors still spoke of deals with Israel and the importance of negotiations brokered by imperialist states.
But Hamas stressed that it favoured uncompromising struggle.
It called for the destruction of Israel, Jihad against Zionism, and a rejection of so-called peace settlements, including the Camp David Agreement of 1978.
Hamas’ covenant also included the aim for Palestine to become an Islamic state. And there were antisemitic passages calling for violence against Jewish people.
But Hamas has shifted if it thinks it is out of step with what the mass of Palestinian people think. Eventually, in 2017, Hamas updated its covenant.
Gone was the rhetoric about transforming Palestine into an Islamic state. The change spoke to secular Palestinians who were concerned that Hamas’ only aim was to push a religious society. The group had appointed a Christian as a Hamas minister in 2006.
It also affirmed that the conflict was with the “Zionist project”, not with the Jews because of their religion. It said “Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.”
In the group’s founding text the role of women within the movement was restricted to raising children. This was taken out in 2017.
In 2021 Jamila al-Shanti became the first woman to be appointed to the group’s political bureau. Her appointment came from decades of campaigning by women in Hamas.
While the leadership of Hamas was finally forced to listen, the appointment of al-Shanti came at a time when women weren’t allowed to vote for those who sat on the political bureau.
The 2017 charter did make one big concession—that there should be a Palestinian state and, by implication, an Israel state too.
Hamas’ victory during the 2006 legislative elections, was a cry of rage against the failure of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, the situation for the Palestinians in the occupied territories had only got worse. They suffered more poverty and misery as well as heightened repression from the Israeli state.
Resentment with the ruling Fatah party and its leaders had been building for some time. They had represented the Palestinians for more than 50 years and had signed up to the Accords with the promise that the compromises would mean real benefits.
Fatah’s attempts to negotiate a Palestinian state handed over more of an opportunity to Israel to entrench its apartheid system, leading to more suffering and misery on the ground.
Hamas, on the other hand, much more clearly reflected the views of ordinary people and pronounced that the Accords were a sham.
Increasingly, the interests and goals of the Fatah leaders seemed separate from those of ordinary Palestinians.
Many were tired of the corruption of Fatah leaders, one of these being Mohammed Dahlan — the former head of security forces in Gaza.
In 1997 he was embroiled in scandal when it was found he was diverting taxes levied at the Karni Crossing cargo terminal in Gaza into his own private bank account.
Increasingly, ordinary Palestinians were finding that the class interests of the leaders of Fatah were very different from theirs.
Hamas, and Islamist groups, across the Middle East, also grew from the failure of the main left parties influenced by Stalinism from the 1960s onwards.
Did Israel fund Hamas’ rise? This is the claim sometimes used to suggest that Hamas is or was simply an outgrowth of Zionist manoeuvres.
In the 1980s, Israeli military governor brigadier general, Yitzhak Segev, told the New York Times that Hamas and other Islamist groups could be a “counterweight” to the secular PLO and Fatah as well as leftist organisations.
The brigadier added that the Israelis donated to the mosques.
If it was the plan it found a political alternative to the PLO, it has now spectacularly backfired.
But in any case, Israeli money could never have produced the scale of support that Hamas now has in the wider population. Israel is now far more desperate to shore up Mahmoud Abbas, and the collaborationist Palestine Authority (PA).
The PA may on occasion clash with Israel, but it also plays a crucial role in policing militant Palestinian resistance. Its security forces have repeatedly beaten protesters during the last month.
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