Monday, July 22
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Hamas: What you need to know

What is Hamas, and what does it want?

The radical Palestinian militant organization that has ruled the Gaza Strip for more than 15 years has sustained a bitter, lethal animus toward Israel that goes much deeper than sentiments found inside Palestinians’ other main ruler in the region, the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas is a Sunni Islamic group that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and whose goals from the beginning have been to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation through any means necessary.

The group was born in the dire poverty of the Gaza Strip under stifling Israeli military occupation in the 1980s and ’90s, and eventually built an active and well-armed military wing with help from neighbors such as Iran.

From early on, Hamas was seen as a challenger to the Palestine Liberation Organization and its successor, the Palestinian Authority, as well as Fatah — the political party of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These largely secular groups were more willing to talk peace with Israel. Hamas enjoys enthusiastic moral and materiel support from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite their observance of Shiite Islam rather than the Sunni doctrine of Hamas.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas does not support the so-called two-state solution — the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel — as a permanent solution. It advocates for a Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, without an Israel. (Some extremists in the current right-wing Israeli government similarly believe in an Israel from the river to the sea, without Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a map to the United Nations General Assembly last month that appeared to formalize that vision.)

Thought to have 10,000 to 40,000 fighters in Gaza, which has a population of 2.2 million, Hamas has resorted to brutal tactics such as suicide bombings and commando raids, as evidenced in the kidnappings and killings of Israelis over the last few days. The Israeli military and intelligence establishment has long contended that Hamas is willing to use civilians as human shields.

Hamas’ leaders launched the unprecedented attack on Saturday with the understanding that Israel’s military would exact painful revenge. They may have calculated that the price was worth paying to embarrass Israel’s government and its intelligence by infiltrating and killing so many Israelis. The group may also believe that large numbers of Palestinian victims could bring it sympathy, at least temporarily, in the Arab and Muslim world.

“Those terrorists launched this activity knowing that there would be retaliation, knowing that Israel would have to defend itself as any country did, knowing that it would lead unfortunately to the loss of life by Palestinians civilians — and they did it anyway,” U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Tuesday.

Hamas was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a graduate of the Muslim Brotherhood whom Israeli forces assassinated in 2004.

Its 1988 charter advocates for the killing or expulsion of all Jews or Zionists. Hamas “will not act against any of the sons of Muslims or those who are peaceful towards it from among non-Muslims,” the charter states. “It will only serve as a support for all groupings and organizations operating against the Zionist enemy and its lackeys.”

The United States, Israel and the European Union have listed Hamas as an international terrorist group. A senior Pentagon official on Monday described Hamas’ actions as “Isis-level savagery.”

After a series of consultations by telephone, Biden and the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom reiterated that they “recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, and support equal measures of justice and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

“But,” they continued, “make no mistake: Hamas does not represent those aspirations, and it offers nothing for the Palestinian people other than more terror and bloodshed.”

Palestinians held legislative elections after Israel partially ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip and withdrew in 2005, and to the surprise of U.S. and other international observers, Hamas won, defeating the Palestinian Authority. Within two years, the group had seized complete power in Gaza, though it was still surrounded and under siege by Israeli military.

Hamas and Israel have clashed in the years since, including during a two-month war in 2014. Meanwhile, Israel has eased some restrictions, allowing thousands of Gazans to enter Israel for work.

There is a current of thought in Israel that successive leaders, starting with late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the early 2000s and through the Netanyahu years, quietly supported Hamas as a way to undermine the Palestinian Authority, which enjoyed international backing in the pursuit of a Palestinian state. If true, the strategy was a miscalculation that many analysts say allowed the formation of a Frankenstein’s monster.

As Hamas consolidated its power over the years, the Palestinian Authority became weaker, more corrupt and less respected. Led by 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas for the last 18 years after his election in 2005 to a four-year term, the Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank has little authority and has been widely criticized for failing to stand up to Israel and to provide basic services to its citizens. Israel has only deepened and expanded its occupation of the West Bank, seizing homes and property from Palestinians and failing to stop Jewish settlers who have attacked Palestinian families.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have also failed to stem the proliferation of other Palestinian militias, who have taken control of parts of the West Bank and attacked settlers.

Despite the groups’ differences in tactics and strategy, many Palestinians, whether they are supporters of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority or nonaligned, see the decades-long Israeli occupation from a similar perspective that transcends ideology, said Hafed al-Ghwell, a former World Bank executive now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

While the offensive is not justifiable or excusable, he said, “it is the natural logical consequence of the Israeli siege of Gaza.”

“They have reached an absolute desperation, thinking, ‘We have nothing to lose,’” he said of Hamas.

The danger lies in how widespread those sentiments are.

There are a number of Palestinians and Arabs who say they do not believe there is such a thing as an Israeli “civilian,” in part because most Israeli men and women are required to perform military service.

Seeing the dramatic actions by Hamas, which have received some praise in parts of the Arab world and in Iran from people angered by the Israeli occupation, is unnerving Palestinian Authority officials.

“They’re in a predicament. They are scared,” said Shira Efron, a former Rand Corp. Middle East expert and research director at the Israel Policy Forum. “They fear for a security blowup in the West Bank. … How do you really bring in the P.A. [given] the current state of the P.A.?”

Al-Ghwell said the Palestinian Authority is “walking a tightrope. They can condemn the barbaric actions, but they can’t be seen as supporting Israel or the occupation.”

Ned Lazarus, an international affairs professor at George Washington University and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Hamas’ deadly offensive has “further weakened and discredited the P.A.” in the Palestinian public’s eyes, “because they’ve seen [armed] ‘resistance,’ as Hamas defines it, is effective.”

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