The development of Hamas, in many ways, mirrors the broader history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
( The National Interest) – The savagery of Hamas’ heinous terrorist attack on October 7, which left 1,200 Israelis dead and over 240 more held captive, marked a significant turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel’s response has been unconscionably brutal, killing more than 11,000 Palestinians thus far, almost half of them children. Blinded by the desire for vengeance, Israel’s rage has transformed much of Gaza into a “wasteland,” creating a grave humanitarian crisis. To understand this horrific and unprecedented escalation, we need to trace the long arc of Hamas’ progressive radicalization towards violence, which is itself reflected in the radicalization of the conflict more broadly.
The Origins of Violence
The origins of the conflict are steeped in violence. It began with the rising tide of antisemitism and persecution of Jews in Europe during the late nineteenth century, from the 1894 Dreyfus Affair in France to widespread pogroms against Jews in Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This hostile milieu saw the emergence of Zionism, a political movement that sought to establish a national homeland in which the Jewish people could reside safely. The first Zionist Congress in 1897 set their sights on establishing this home in Ottoman Palestine. However, they faced an immediate moral quandary: the land was already populated by Palestinian Arabs, and the creation of a Jewish state would inevitably entail forced demographic changes.
Some Zionists expressed unease over the prospect of violently expropriating land from the Arabs. Israel Zangwill wrote in 1905, “Palestine proper has already its inhabitants…. [We] must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the [Arab] tribes in possession as our forefathers did or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan and accustomed for centuries to hate us.” Others, attempting to assuage the cognitive dissonance of forcibly divesting the Arabs of their land, while themselves being refugees from persecution, adopted the placating myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
The debate was rendered moot with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In an effort to secure international support during World War I, Britain pledged to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in what would become its Palestinian Mandate—a spoil of war from the conquered Ottomans. The British government, mindful of similar promises made to Arabs (in return for their support against the Ottomans), added the proviso that nothing “shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In response, Jews escaping the scourge of antisemitism in Europe flocked to Palestine, irrevocably changing its demographic composition. Jews in Palestine grew from 4 percent of the population in 1897 to 17 percent in 1931, and by 1948, on the eve of the State of Israel’s birth, they constituted one-third of the two million people living in Palestine.
During this period, the local Arab population, alarmed by the prospect of being supplanted by the incoming Jewish migrants, grew increasingly restless. The Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem, Aref Pasha Dajani, captured the febrile mood in 1919, writing, “It is impossible for us to make an understanding with them [Jews] or even to live [sic] them together…If the League of Nations will not listen to the appeal of the Arabs, this country will become a river of blood.” This simmering resentment eventually boiled over into increasingly bitter intercommunal violence, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides, with key flashpoints including the 1921 Jaffa Riots and the 1929 Wailing Wall Riots.
Jewish immigration reached its apogee during The Fifth Aliyah, with over 250,000 Jews arriving in Palestine between 1929-39, many of whom were fleeing Nazi persecution. The new arrivals exacerbated existing tensions with locals, particularly Arab tenant farmers who found themselves moved off their lands and forced into destitution. Sheikh Izzeddin Al-Qassam, a revivalist Islamic preacher incensed by the farmers’ plight, organized violent resistance against both Jewish and British targets, framing it as a religious “jihad” against the occupiers. His death in 1935 at the hands of the British electrified the Palestinian population—his funeral procession in Haifa alone drew three thousand mourners. Today, Hamas’ own literature views this event as part of the group’s mythical origin story; They are the rightful heirs to an unbroken militant lineage that began with Qassam’s “martyrdom.” Unsurprisingly, Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the infamous Qassam rocket are also named in his honor.
Al-Qassam’s death galvanized his followers, instigating further attritional violence against both Jews and the British colonial administration and culminating in the Arab Revolt of 1936-9. The emergence of underground Zionist paramilitary groups like Irgun, which waged “active defense” campaigns carrying out indiscriminate terrorist bombings of Arab marketplaces, only added to the polarisation of this period. The British, who eventually subdued the Arab Revolt with the assistance of Zionist militias, killing at least 5,000 Arabs in the process, sought to curtail Jewish immigration as the source of the tensions. Irgun, incensed by “Britain’s betrayal,” now turned its wrath against the British, most infamously, carrying out a devastating terrorist bombing in 1946 against the British Headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Amid increasing violence and disorder, Britain decided to terminate its unworkable mandate and hand it to the newly established United Nations. The UN General Assembly recommended a partition of Palestine into two states in 1947. Although Arabs outnumbered Jews by a ratio of 2:1, the proposed Jewish State was accorded 56 percent of the land, much of it within the most fertile areas. Arabs, deeming this division inequitable, rejected the plan outright, setting in motion a civil war that would consume the two communities.
The Traumatic Memory of the Nakba
In March 1948, the Jewish Agency implemented Plan Dalet, designed to secure control over the maximum territory in Mandatory Palestine in preparation for the establishment of a Jewish state while expelling or neutralizing Palestinian forces and populations in the process. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has described Plan Dalet as a “blueprint for ethnic cleansing.” In just a matter of months, this intense period of violence had served as a midwife, helping to birth the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. The announcement immediately triggered the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when the nascent state was attacked by its immediate Arab neighbors. For Palestinians, this period represented an unmitigated tragedy. By 1949, when the dust had settled, 15,000 Palestinians had been killed, many in mass atrocities committed in villages like Deir Yassin and Tantura; over 400 Palestinian towns and villages had been depopulated; Israel had increased its land share to 78 percent of the territory; and 750,000 Palestinians had been made stateless in what became known as The Nakba or “Great Catastrophe.”
The Nakba has become the seminal event shaping Palestinian identity and collective memory. The enduring image of the Nakba remains one of the long caravans of bedraggled refugees carrying their meager possessions and, crucially, the keys to their properties, desperately fleeing to safety in neighboring states, enduring constant harrying by Zionist militias along the way. Even to this day, almost every Palestinian family jealously guards a key to their historic home in Palestine, a precious family heirloom passed from generation to generation in the absurd hope that they might return one day to open the door of a house in a village that no longer exists.
The memory of the Nakba continues to be invoked in the current hostilities. Israel’s mass displacement of Gazans towards the Egyptian border in the south, ahead of its aerial bombardment campaign, has been labeled a “second Nakba” by Palestinians. In a strange concurrence, some voices on the Israeli side have also recognized historical parallels with the current Gazan plight. Avi Dichter, Israel’s Agriculture Minister and former Minister of Internal Security and Director of Shin Bet, recently stated, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba…Gaza Nakba 2023. That’s how it’ll end.” Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the Nakba’s central importance throughout the story of this conflict. Ahmed Yassin was twelve years old when his village of al-Jura was ethnically cleansed in 1948, forcing his family to flee to the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza. The Nakba’s trauma would prove formative, critically shaping his attitude towards the enemy when he founded Hamas four decades later.
“Hamas is a creature of Israel.”
Hamas’ origins were distinctly non-violent. Its parent organization, al-Mujamma al-Islamiyya, was founded in 1973 by Yassin as an Islamic charity linked to the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The group had long adopted an apolitical stance, and even after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel annexed and occupied the Palestinian territories, or the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Brotherhood categorically refused to participate in the armed struggle against Israel. Accordingly, al-Mujamma focused on providing social, religious, and educational services and welfare to Palestinians in Gaza. This stance was at odds with other secular Palestinian groups at the time, which were actively engaged in violent resistance against Israel’s occupation at home or terrorist attacks abroad, such as the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. In contrast, al-Mujamma’s pacifist outlook led to Israel recognizing it as a charity in 1979, allowing it to operate freely and financing and supporting its development of a network of Islamist social institutions throughout Gaza.
More broadly, Israel came to view religious groups like Hamas’ predecessor as harmless, regarding them as effective counterweights against their secular nationalist rival, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. As an early example of “blowback,” Avner Cohen, an advisor to the Israeli commander of the Gaza Strip, described Hamas as a “golem” in 1984, implying that the group resembled the creature from Jewish folklore that is created to help the Jewish community, but often ends up threatening its creator. Years later, Arafat would level a similar accusation, stating, “Hamas is a creature of Israel.” claiming the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, admitted that supporting Hamas had been a regrettable strategic error.
The Intifadas and the Rise of Hamas
In 1987, the outbreak of the First Intifada changed everything. The first grass-roots revolt by ordinary Palestinians attempting to “shake off” a twenty-year Israeli military occupation. The Intifada entailed protests, strikes, boycotts, and stone-throwing at Israeli soldiers. Hamas, an acronym for The Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded the same month, emerging directly out of Yassin’s al-Mujamma charity. Offering a religious alternative to the secular PLO, Hamas sought to assume the Intifada’s leadership. Despite Hamas’ hyperbolic rhetoric (their founding charter called for the annihilation of Israel), Yassin indicated an initial willingness to negotiate, but under the condition that Israel first “acknowledge the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and right of return to their land.” Israel snubbed the effort and continued to suppress the protests.
The First Intifada resulted in 1,200 Palestinians dead, 15,000 imprisoned, and over 130,000 injured—many resulting from an Israeli government policy of deliberately breaking the bones of protestors. During the same period, 180 Israelis were also killed. Witnessing the brutal suppression of these largely non-violent, popular uprisings would radicalize Hamas’ view of the conflict and see the group embark on its descent into violence.
The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, representing a tentative, partial peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, formally ended the First Intifada. Extremists from both sides opposed these overtures to peace. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader who had signed the Accords, would himself be assassinated within two years by an Israeli right-wing extremist. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, displaying early signs of its intransigence, refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence. While the group had conducted its first terrorist suicide bombing earlier that year, Hamas leaders nevertheless expressed some ambivalence about targeting Israeli civilians. This changed with the 1994 Hebron Mosque Massacre—an act carried out by another Israeli extremist attempting to sabotage the Oslo Accords.
Baruch Goldstein, a U.S.-born settler and follower of the radical Zionist political party, Kach, had donned his Israeli military uniform and killed twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers at the Ramadan nightly prayer, wounding 125 more. Israel’s government quickly condemned the attack and banned Kach, designating it a terrorist organization. Five years later, the government would also dismantle the shrine that had been erected around Goldstein’s grave and which had been consecrated as an object of veneration and pilgrimage by Jewish extremists. In stark contrast, and as evidence of the creeping radicalization of successive Israeli governments towards the far right, Israel’s current Minister for National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, displayed a portrait of Goldstein in his living room until as late as 2020, only removing it ahead of his foray into Israeli politics. In retaliation for Goldstein’s massacre, Hamas embarked on a campaign of deadly terrorist suicide bombings, indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians throughout the late 90s. Unsurprisingly, the group was quickly designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in 1997, with other Western countries following shortly thereafter.
The cycle of violence and counter-violence continued unabated throughout the Second Intifada, sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque. A right-wing politician who would go on to become Israel’s next Prime Minister, Sharon was widely reviled by Palestinians for his brutal military involvement in the 1953 Qibya Massacre and the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacres. The Second Intifada proved far deadlier for both sides, resulting in 4,200 deaths, but crucially, 25 percent of these casualties were now Israelis—a toll largely attributable to the deadly new strategy of suicide and rocket attacks employed by groups like Hamas. Israel also targeted Hamas’ leadership during the Intifada, particularly for its support of suicide bombings. Reinforcing the role of visual politics in the conflict, the asymmetry of an Apache helicopter gunship firing Hellfire missiles and killing Yassin—a frail, partially blind, wheelchair-bound quadriplegic—in 2004 emerged as one of the enduring images of this period.
Hamas in Power
The violence subsided in 2005, followed by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, including the dismantling of its illegal settlements there. Hamas emerged from the Intifada claiming victory, presenting “the liberation of Gaza” as a complete vindication of its strategy of armed struggle, claiming “four years of resistance surpassed 10 years of bargaining.” Its surprise victory in the 2006 elections confirmed the group’s popular support amongst the Palestinian public, mainly attributable to its decades-long investment in charitable works and perceived lack of corruption. However, Hamas’ electoral mandate was never accepted by Israel or Western powers, who backed the rival Fatah party. A violent power struggle ensued in which Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, who then continued to administer the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In response to Hamas’ takeover, Israel blockaded Gaza, ravaging its economy.
In power, Hamas attempted to moderate its position by abandoning suicide bombings and making occasional half-hearted overtures to Israel. In 2008, the group “offered a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, a truce of ten years as a proof of recognition [of the state of Israel].” It also sought to focus its attention on governance despite the dire economic conditions resulting from the blockade and the decision of Western governments to withhold financial assistance. The crisis was partly alleviated by building a black-market tunnel economy with Egypt and support from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. Netanyahu has, in recent weeks, been criticized for his central role in propping up Hamas by allowing it to receive funding from Qatar. Netanyahu had reportedly defended this policy back in 2019, arguing that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy—to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” The quote proved revelatory in other ways, too, confirming Netanyahu’s opposition to any semblance of Palestinian statehood.
In power, Hamas was an unmitigated disaster for the Gazan Palestinians. Not only was the group an abject failure in terms of governance, but Hamas also remained zealously committed to its struggle against Israel. Their counterproductive policy of intermittently firing barrages of indiscriminate rockets and mortars across the border only seemed to invite Israel’s disproportionate responses, which often followed a by now depressingly familiar pattern of collective punishment in large-scale military operations, such as Operation Cast Lead (2008), Operation Pillar of Defence (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). Between 2008 and 2023, before the recent hostilities began, 6,400 Palestinians were killed by Israel, the vast majority in Gaza. In contrast, during the same period, 300 Israelis also lost their lives to Palestinian violence.
Life in the Palestinian territories grew progressively worse in other ways, too, through an utterly dehumanizing security regime of checkpoints, sieges, arrests, house demolitions, and mass incarceration. Over 155,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli military or settler violence during this period. However, 60 percent of these casualties originated in the West Bank, which the Palestinian Authority administered and had nothing to do with Hamas. This period also witnessed the ongoing annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, which had more than quadrupled by 2023, numbering close to 300 and housing around 700,000 settlers.
In an attempt to court international opinion, Hamas appeared to tone down its rhetoric in recent years. Its revised manifesto in 2017 endorsed the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 lines—a tacit acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. It also differentiated between Jews and Zionists, claiming its fight was only with the latter, eschewing the anti-Semitic language in its original founding document. This illusion was shattered on October 7. Many commentators have pointed to the incipient normalization in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which threatened Hamas—and perhaps its current sponsor, Iran—as the most likely explanation for the sudden escalation in violence that attempted to derail the rapprochement. Whatever the geopolitical reasons for the recent conflagration, what is certain is that all actors are likely to emerge from this watershed moment more radicalized than ever, perhaps for a generation to come.
Reprinted from The National Interest with the author’s permission.