Abbreviation of Harakat Al-Mouqawama Al-(I)Slamia (Islamic Resistance Movement). The word Hamas itself means enthusiasm, exaltation, (more often in a religious sense). Hamas is the main Palestinian fundamentalist political movement and has grown out of a network of old religious associations and claims to be philosophically linked to the Muslim Brothers whose influence developed in Gaza under Egyptian rule and which was widely tolerated during the first years of the Israeli occupation as an alternative to the PLO.

Its spiritual founding father, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was imprisoned in Israel in 1991. In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu liberated him after an ultimatum from King Hussein of Jordan, following a bungled Israeli assassination attempt against Khaled Mashaal, one of Hamas’ responsibles in exile in Amman. Created in Gaza in 1987, Hamas gained influence thanks to the Palestinian insurrection, the Intifada, in the Occupied Territories and asserted itself as the direct rival of the « secular » PLO. Hamas does not however question the role of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people at an international level. The movement has left its mark on Palestinian social life through the creation of hospitals, schools, control of mosques, etc… The management of these institutions is carried out today by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

In December 1987, after the outbreak of the Intifada, a « United Intifada Command » was set up comprising one third of Hamas representatives and two thirds from the PLO. Hamas withdrew from this Command in May 1988, pursuing its own struggle. In December 1992, Israel deported 415 activists directly or indirectly linked to Hamas to south Lebanon (see deportation).

Hamas appears to be basically a nationalist movement aiming at the total liberation of historical Palestine (thus differing from the PLO’ compromise attitude) and the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine. Opposed to the Oslo Agreements (see « Oslo peace process ») signed between the PLO and Israel since September 1993, it joined the « Alliance of Palestinian forces », an alliance of Palestinian movements opposed to the peace process. The growing influence of Hamas springs from frustrations caused by the failures of the peace process, from the degradation of the image of the PLO-led PNA (notably its undemocratic tendencies) and from the attitude of the Israeli government (repeated closures of the autonomous Palestinian territories, continuation of the colonisation, etc…). Hamas boycotted the Palestinian elections of January 1996 in spite of early rumours of participation.

Close to Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade is a nebula of small terrorist groups involved in several deadly bombings in Israel since 1994. Since then, the Palestinian National Authority has severely repressed Muslim fundamentalist circles in the autonomous Palestinian territories.

However, there has always been a dialogue between the PLO and Hamas. Several members of the political leadership of Hamas would like to normalize the relations of their movement with the Authority, thus turning it into a political party. This tendency had a setback in 1996 when Yahya Ayache, accountable for several attacks in Israel, was killed by an Israeli guided missile in spite of the compliance of a tacit cease fire negotiated with the PLO as mediator. The bombings have been widely credited with turning Israelis off the peace process and bringing about the election of hardline right-winger Binyamin Netanyahu, defeating Shimon Peres.

Today there are signs of a rift between two tendencies within Hamas, one – based in Gaza – advocating dialogue in the perspective of transforming Hamas into a political force respecting the democratic process, the other – based in Amman – preferring violence.

The outburst of the Intifada Al Aqsa (Second Intifada) and the intense repression by Israeli army have somehow approached Hamas and Fatah, Arafat’s political movement. Fatah’s local factions are indeed very active in the uprising and the actions against the Israeli army, often putting the Palestinian National Authority into a fix. Since October 2000, Hamas’ political and military officials are the main targets of the so-called “assassination policy” launched by Israeli military services.

In March 2004, under Ariel Sharon’s command the Israeli military army, killed Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin in a missile attack. Following the killing , Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi emerged as Hamas leader. Nevertheless, according to several experts, Khaled Mashaal, based in Damascus, would be Hamas chief and overall leader.

Al-Rantissi has been killed by the Israeli army in April 2004. On the 25th of January 2006, the Hamas’ list « Change and Reform » wins 74 over 132 seats at the Palestinian Parliament, by opposition to Fatah which wins only 45.  Ismail Hamyeh, head of list, declared he was ready to work with Fatah. Hamas then formed the new government and Hamyeh was appointed Prime Minister.

The nomination of Hamas in the Government introduced a deep crisis in Palestine: International grants were immediately cut, the victory of Hamas being perceived by foreign countries as a step backwards. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel refused any negotiations with Hamas. Ehud Olmert, at the time interim Prime Minister declared: « We do not negotiate and we do not deal with a Palestinian Authority dominated by a terrorist organization. » Furthermore, the situation between the Palestinians themselves deteriorated significantly, the inability for Fatah and Hamas to reach any agreement led Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the government in place and hold early parliamentary elections despite the Basic Law. Faced with the refusal of Hamas, the two parties agreed on an agreement for a Palestinian government of national unity.

Despite these efforts, Hamas and Fatah split as a result of a civil war in June 2007 after which Hamas took control of Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas immediately dismissed Ismail Hanieyh appointing in his place Salam Fayyad. In doing so, the President of the Palestinian Authority has deliberately ignored the Basic Law which requires that the Prime Minister must be replaced by a member of the parliamentary majority. It is not the case with Fayyad and this has led to distortions within Fatah.