Who are Hamas?

It took them a week to threaten a peace process which took years to build. John Lichfield profiles the group putting terror into the heart of Israel
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The Independent Online
What is Hamas?

It is a militant Islamic movement, with political and military wings, which aims to create an Islamic state in the pre-Second World War "mandate" territory of Palestine, in other words the whole of present-day Israel plus Gaza and the West Bank. Its name is an acronym of the first letters of the arabic words for Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas also means "zeal".

Where did it come from?

Hamas grew from the grass-roots Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories in the 1980s (the intifada). Its inspiration came from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It was founded by a paraplegic fundamentalist clergyman, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in the Gaza Strip in 1987. Sheikh Yassin is serving a life sentence in Israel for political violence. Hamas grew from a dissatisfaction with the strategy of the mainstream Palestinian political leadership, grouped in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

There is some evidence that, in its earliest days, Hamas was fostered by Israel to undermine Mr Arafat and to divert support from the radical Marxist groups like the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, which were then in vogue. Since the signing of the outline peace agreement between the PLO and Israel in 1993, Hamas has been the main focus of the dissident - or in Middle East jargon, "rejectionist" - Palestinian forces.

What does Hamas want?

An Islamic state on the Iranian model. It rejects the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a surrender to Zionism, which it sees as an alien and racist force, underwritten by western imperialism. Some Hamas officials have spoken in more conciliatory terms of accepting a peace settlement in "stages", but it is unclear what it means by that.

What is the aim of the latest bombing campaign?

To win the May Israeli election for a right-wing coalition led by Likud. Each bomb has knocked several percentage points off the poll lead of the Labour-led government of Shimon Peres. Each blast has eaten away at the hopes of the ordinary non-political Israeli that peace with Arafat would bring security. If the uncompromising Likud does win - as now seems extremely likely - the peace process will be halted and conceivably put into reverse.

Is the bombing the work of a splinter group, or Hamas itself?

It is hard to be absolutely sure. The military wing of Hamas - the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades - have been calling for a truce. The group admitting responsibility for the bombings, the Disciples of Yehiya Ayyash, have rejected any cessation of violence. According to Israeli TV, the orders for the bombings came from Hamas leaders in Syria, not the West Bank or Gaza. One possibility is that the core Hamas leadership is behind the bombings, but is pretending not to be

Why do that?

To avoid the crackdown on its peaceful and military activities which Israelis are urging Yasser Arafat to undertake. The other possibility is that there is a fissure within the movement. On one side are those who wish to kill the peace process; on the other side are those who argue that this would be suicide bombing on a grand scale, as the ultimate victims would be the Hamas movement itself, as well as peace.

So who is in charge of Hamas?

No one is sure. With Sheikh Yassin in prison, the movement is thought to be controlled by a highly secretive executive committee of uncertain number. The military wing is thought to be organised in a number of semi- autonomous cells. Hamas has a public face, which organises its education and welfare programmes, but that does not give much of a clue to its real leaders, some of whom are undoubtedly abroad.

What help does Hamas get help from outside?

It is difficult to pinpoint how much, and from whom. Syria, at the very least, allows Hamas leaders and radio stations to operate from its territory; but then Hamas leaders are also believed to operate from Jordan, which supports the peace process. The usual presumption is that Hamas is supported from Iran. But Hamas is a Sunni Muslim movement and Iran Shia.

Iran is thought to give its practical help mostly to a sister, but rival organisation, Islamic Jihad. (According to some Middle East experts, however, Islamic Jihad is just another of the hydra heads of the amorphous Hamas). Some financial support for Hamas came from Saudi Arabia but this may have reduced in recent years. Hamas fighters have also received military training in Sudan. But, supreme irony of ironies, most of the cash which supports Hamas now may come from the Palestinian diaspora in America, also the main banker to Israel.

What sort of people support Hamas?

The devout, the dispossessed and the disaffected. Hamas finds Gaza and some West Bank cities a useful recruiting ground for young people seeking opportunities in suicidal fanaticism. But its growing strength also reflects the turn away from secularism by Palestinians of all social groups in the last 20 years and the rediscovery of Islam as a symbol of national identity. Many middle-class professionals support Hamas and fill the ranks of its political leadership. The political wing of Hamas also runs - very efficiently - a range of Islamic institutions from kindergartens and schools to charities. It is these activities, which offer the promise of a more Islamic future, which the more cautious Hamas minds may be reluctant to place at risk through a bombing campaign.

How strong is Hamas politically?

It is generally accepted that about 15 to 20 per cent of the population of Gaza and the West Bank supports Hamas (proportionally more in Gaza, where economic conditions are more deplorable.) Although Hamas did not officially take part in the Palestinian elections in January, it did support some candidates and generally they were successful.

And militarily?

The strength of the "military" units of Hamas is the subject of feverish conjecture (not least in the Israeli security services). A campaign of suicide bombing requires little more than quantities of Semtex and an endless supply of young "martyrs".

Could Yasser Arafat do more to prevent the bombings?

Yes, probably, but at a price which might be just as destructive, in the long term, to the prospects of a lasting peace. He could crush Hamas in the short term by imposing the kind of police state familiar elsewhere in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia spring to mind). But he might have to fight a Palestinian civil war to do so, triggering a new spiral of bitterness among young militants opposed to the peace.

What can Israel do?

Israel is already the most security-conscious democratic nation on earth. There is little more that can be done to stop suicide attacks on buses, other than permanently sealing Israel's borders with Gaza and the West Bank, causing huge economic disruption. The Peres government has warned that it might take direct action against Hamas inside the West Bank and Gaza. This would strike at the heart of the authority granted to the fledgling Palestinian government and, conceivably, provoke fighting between Israeli and Arafat forces.

Will there be more bombs?

One theory is that these are revenge attacks for the assassination on 5 January by Israeli security services of Yahyah Ayyash, the Hamas master- bomber known as the "engineer".

But if that were the aim why would there be four bombs?

The suspicion of Middle East experts is that this is not just a revenge attack; it is more strategic. The possibility opens up that the bombing may continue, intermittently, over the next 11 weeks or until the Peres government grows desperate and takes direct action within Gaza and the West Bank, placing the whole peace process in jeopardy.

So is the Middle East peace doomed?

Maybe. It is certainly facing its bloodiest and most politically agonising test . It would be wrong to underestimate the amount of political capital invested in Middle East peace: by the Peres government; by the Israeli and Palestinian peoples; by Mr Arafat; by President Clinton. Although a patchwork unsatisfactory peace, it is more blast-proof than it seems. But it is not necessarily robust enough to withstand an unholy alliance between the Israeli right and Islamic fundamentalism.