Why do Israel and Hamas fight?

Palestinian militant organisation formed in 1987 and dedicated to ‘liberation’ labelled a terror group by some

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 17 May 2021 14:14 BST
Smoke rises from Gaza City after Israel airstrikes kill at least 42 people
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The violent exchanges of fire between the Israeli army and Hamas have entered a second week, with the former unleashing heavy airstrikes on Gaza in the early hours of Monday morning.

Over the weekend, an office building in Gaza City that housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera news agencies was reduced to rubble by Israeli missiles, prompting accusations that the tower was specifically targeted in a bid to silence international media critical of Israel’s actions.

So far, 200 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, more than 50 of them children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, while Israel’s authorities report that its own death toll has climbed to ten, with at least two children among the casualties.

The latest eruption in a feud that raged even before the founding of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 began on Thursday 6 May when Palestinian Muslims celebrating the start of Ramadan protested police restrictions at the historic Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem.

Worshippers attending Friday prayers the next morning at the city’s al-Aqsa mosque compound (a holy site known as the Temple Mount to Israeli Jews) were met with a heavy police presence and violence erupted in which more than 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli officers were hurt as rubber bullets and stun grenades were fired and arrests made.

Palestinians were also angered by the threatened eviction by force of dozens of their number from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, an area claimed by both sides.

Last week’s violence marked the worst outbreak of fighting in Israel since 2014 but conflicts have often been seen on Nakba Day - 15 May - commemorated every year by the Palestinians to remember the Nakba (catastrophe) of the 700,000-strong exodus necessitated by the outbreak of the bloody Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

In the aftermath of that conflict, neighbouring Egypt held Gaza and Jordan took administrative control of the West Bank from 1950 until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli forces made military advances into both disputed territories plus the Golan Heights and Sinai, sparking further bloodshed and prompting the UN Security Council to call on Israel to withdraw from areas it has considered occupied ever since.

Periodic explosions of violence between Israel and the Palestinian people continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, either side of the signing of the Camp David Accords on 17 September 1978 by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, which was mediated by US president Jimmy Carter and won the signatories the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hamas was founded in 1987 at the time of the first Intifada - an uprising against Israel’s incursions into Gaza and the West Bank 20 years earlier - as a militant nationalist organisation whose name is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah, meaning “Islamic Resistance Movement”.

A successor organisation to the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (first established in Egypt in 1928), Hamas’s co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said at the outset in the group’s August 1988 charter that its aims were to liberate the lands its adherents consider to have been illegally occupied by Israel since 1948 and to create a new Islamic state in its place from the River Jordan to the Mediterrean Sea, the mirror-image of Zionist dreams of an exclusively Jewish Israel.

Hamas’s first forays against Israel took place in February and May 1989, when two soldiers were abducted and executed, but its operations intensified after the al-Aqsa massacre of October 1990 when 17 people were killed during a religious dispute at the same site that sparked the present tensions. Hamas subsequently declared a jihad against every Israeli solider and carried out its first suicide bombing at Mehola Junction in the West Bank in April 1993.

But, since 1994 and the era of the Oslo Accords, Hamas has said it would be prepared to accept a truce with Israel if the latter were to withdraw from the territorial advances it made in 1967, pay reparations, support free elections in Gaza and the West Bank and grant Palestinians the right to return to the homes they were driven from by the 1948 war.

Those terms have so far largely not been met and Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades - named in honour of a Muslim revolutionary leader executed by the British in Jenin in 1935 - has continued to engage in rocket strikes on Israeli cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa in the interim, drawing heavy retaliation from its far-better-armed opponent.

The Oslo Accords, signed by Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993 and 1995, provided for the creation of a Palestinian interim self-government, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), in Gaza and the West Bank, which duly began holding elections.

Hamas initially abstained from taking part before running candidates in January 2006 and defeating the PLO-aligned Fatah party to win a majority.

Its victory was met with concern by the UN, EU, US and Russia, the quartet halting financial support to the PNA when Hamas refused to commit to their conditions of non-violence and the recognition of the State of Israel.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli warplanes target Palestinian enclave on 17 May 2021 (AFP/Getty)

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah subsequently erupted into the Battle of Gaza in June 2007, which saw Hamas take control of the Strip and oust Fatah officials from Ismail Haniyeh’s short-lived unity government, a takeover that resulted in Israel and Egypt imposing an economic blockade on Gaza, citing Fatah’s ejection as the loss of a key moderating influence.

While Egyptian mediators succeeded in brokering a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas between June and December 2008, simmering tensions swiftly erupted into violence again and Israel has since launched repeated assaults on Hamas in the territory, beginning with Operation Cast Lead that year and followed by Operation Pillar of Defence (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014), justifying its missions as defensive maneuvers against an ongoing existential threat.

For his part, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has denied that his group’s opposition to Israel is grounded in antisemitism (despite its record of provocative Holocaust denial), telling CBS This Morning in July 2014: “We are not fanatics. We are not fundamentalists. We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers.”

Hamas’s approach by no means has the support of all Palestinians, with PNA president Mahmoud Abbas accusing the organisation of needlessly extending the fighting in 2014 that left 2,200 dead and of running a “shadow government” in Gaza. However it was exxpected to do well in elections scheduled for later this year, but now postponed.

Hamas is currently considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US, EU, Canada and Japan while Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Paraguay apply the same designation of its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades only.

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