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Frequently Asked Questions About Hamas

Produced by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation-Resources Taskforce
March 2006

March 23rd, 2006

Q. What is Hamas and how did it come into being?

Hamas is the acronym for harakat al-muqawwama al-islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement) and is also the Arabic word for zeal. Hamas was founded during the early days of the 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli military forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[1] That uprising, which was then led by nationalist and largely secular Palestinians, was a largely non-violent attempt by Palestinians to secure their freedom and self-determination after 20 years of Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza.

Over the past five decades, different Arab governments as well as Israel have viewed Islamic movements as a bulwark against nationalist and secular movements. They first enabled them to organize freely but moved against them when they became too strong. When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, it released some prisoners connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, a strong regional Islamic movement founded in Egypt (where it recently did well in parliamentary elections.) Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was one of those released by Israel and in 1978[2] Yassin founded Al Mujamma al Islami (the Islamic Center) a religious and social organization. Throughout this time, Israel was working to weaken support for the PLO and other leftist organizations 2 in the Occupied Territories. While Fateh was experiencing severe forms of repression, Israel allowed Yassin’s organization to operate freely. When the first intifada broke out in 1987 Hamas officially came into existence as the armed wing of the Islamic Center.[3]

Q. Did the Palestinian electoral system and a splintering of the Fateh vote helped Hamas win? And what about the popular vote?

Technically yes. In Palestine, half of the seats of the legislative council are elected by proportional representation while the other half is elected by distributing the remaining 66 seats across 16 districts based on the size of the district. The voters in that district then vote for the same number of candidates as seats available in that district. Hamas was disciplined during the election process, fielding only one candidate per seat, whereas Fateh members not chosen to represent their party ran as independents, splintering the Fateh vote (more candidates meant fewer votes per candidate.) This allowed Hamas candidates to win even though overall in the district, Fatah and Hamas as parties received similar numbers of actual votes. Hamas did win the popular vote however, even though they only received around 44% compared to Fatah's 41%. [4]

Q. What was the appeal of Hamas to the Palestinians?

By 2006, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had lived under Israeli military occupation for 37 years, many still living in refugee camps established after Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948. Throughout the Oslo “peace negotiations” [5] brokered in 1993 by the US and the international community, the number of Israeli settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories doubled and Palestinian living conditions and freedom of movement declined with Israel’s restrictive “closure” policy. Palestinians blame Fateh for failing to properly represent the Palestinian people and many saw Hamas as the only alternative.[6] Hamas publicly calls for dealing with Israel from a position of strength grounded in a Palestinian perspective, with full right of return at forefront, rather than one that is crafted to meet the demands of the US-Israeli dictated framework. Furthermore, many Palestinians view Fateh as corrupt and unable to meet the basic needs of the people. Hamas, in contrast, has a reputation for honesty, a track record of providing social services and aid to the poor, and is closely in touch with the needs and perspectives of grassroots communities.

Q. Who voted for Hamas?

A wide range of Palestinians voted for Hamas, including Christians. Exit polls showed that the only demographic factor representing a significant difference in support of Fateh or Hamas was religion: more Muslims voted for Hamas or Fateh, and more Christians voted for other independent lists. It is noteworthy that even Christians were willing to vote for an Islamic party and that age, sex, refugee status, income level, or profession was not a significant factor in supporting Hamas. These voting patterns illustrate the extent of Palestinian frustration with the status quo namely Fatah’s corruption and sellout negotiations with Israel.[7]

Q. Were the elections free and fair and carried out in a truly democratic fashion?

These elections were the most democratic to be held in Palestine and possibly in the Arab world. Former US President Jimmy Carter labeled them “completely honest.” [8] The main problems that arose had to do with the occupation. Political parties were prevented from campaigning in occupied East Jerusalem, even though its inhabitants are Palestinians, and citizens there faced restrictions on voting. However, the overall voter turnout was very high at 78% and people were free to vote for their choice of candidates.[9] Thus, it is believed that the elections were a true representation of the will of the Palestinians under occupation and the issue of East Jerusalem did not have a significant impact on the results.[10] It should be noted that no arrangements were made to enable Palestinian exiles to exercise their right to vote, unlike those that were recently made for Iraqi exiles, which was protested by communities of Palestinian refugees and exiles.

Q. What is Hamas’ position toward Israel? Has this position evolved?

The Hamas charter states “its ultimate goal is Islam.” It views Zionism as a roadblock in the establishment of universal Islam and jihad against Zionism is a religious imperative.[11] The Charter views the entirety of the land of Palestine as it was in 1947 as a religious trust (waqf) that cannot be divided or abandoned and belonging strictly to the Islamic faith. The charter calls for an Islamic state in historic Palestine in which other faiths will have rights according to Islamic law and will be treated with respect as long they do not challenge Islamic rule. The charter also attacks Israel, the Jews and the international community for their roles in carrying out and supporting the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Hamas has not changed its charter and, in the wake of its victory in the elections, some of its political leaders have said they will not do so. Hamas members however, ran for elections not on the basis of the party’s charter.[12] Dr. Abed al-Aziz Duaik, a moderate slated to head the new Palestinian Legislative Council stated that once the new government was formed, Hamas would formulate its own peace plan with a long-term truce with Israel at its center.[13]

Past statements by assassinated Hamas leader Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi pointed to an acceptance of Israel within its borders before 1967, in return for ending the armed struggle and de facto recognition. "We haven't the force to liberate all our land," he said in a BBC interview in 2002. "We can't recognize Israel, but we can accept a truce with them and we can live side by side and refer the issue to coming generations."5 Some analysts believe that Hamas is following the same pragmatic path towards a relationship with Israel that the PLO and Fateh followed in the 1980s and 1990s under the leadership of Yasser Arafat.

Hamas leaders have also noted that Israel does not yet recognize Palestinian rights. It is worth recalling that the PLO changed its charter in the wake of the Oslo Accords, after repeated demands to do so by Israel and the US, but this led to neither freedom nor fulfillment of Palestinian rights – a lesson that is not lost on the Palestinians.

Q. What is “terrorism” and what is the US position on terrorism and terrorist organizations? What is the position of the United Nations?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation notes that there is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism. It uses the definition in the Code of Federal Regulations “...the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[14]

UN Security Council Resolution 49/60 of 1994 states that, "Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them." UN Security Council Resolution 1456 of 2003 sets out the steps states should take to combat “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

The US bans all dealings with groups it has defined as terrorist organizations. The US and the European Union define Hamas as a terrorist organization. There are many instances in history where men formerly called terrorists are later accepted as world leaders, including in Israel itself. The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir were both described as terrorists by British authorities for their attacks against British troops and UN mediators in Palestine during the 1940s.

Finally, the term terrorism is not just applied to groups engaged in acts as described above, but also to states carrying out such acts (“state-sponsored terrorism.”) Israel has used deliberate means to terrorize Palestinian populations including home demolitions, nightly invasions, assassinations, arbitrary arrest, torture and most recently, sonic booms (F-16s breaking the sound barrier above civilian areas), criticized by international Human Rights groups for their severe affects on humans including miscarriages, shock, anxiety, nausea, seizures, and nosebleeds. Sonic booms are even more traumatizing for children under 6 who cannot differentiate between real and simulated bombings.[15]

Q. How do the majority of Palestinians feel about the use of violence against civilians to achieve political ends?

The election of Hamas does not indicate that Palestinians support terrorism or violence against civilians. While under International law Palestinians have the right to resist occupation if it does not involve attacks against civilians,” a poll conducted in 2004 showed that 83% of Palestinians support a mutual cessation of violence and 59% say that if such an agreement were reached, they would support actions to prevent attacks against Israelis.[16] Furthermore, a 2003 survey showed that 71% of Palestinians would support reconciliation if a political agreement between the two sides was reached.[17]A poll in 2005 showed that support for suicide bombings dropped dramatically from 77% to 29%.[18] Palestinians appear to support violence less if they see Israel also making efforts toward peace. Following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, 62% of Palestinians opposed continuing armed attacks from the Gaza Strip, 60% supported collecting arms from militant group, and 77% also supported continuing the cease-fire.[19]

Hamas’ first suicide operation against Israel was in 1994, after more than two dozen Palestinians were shot to death by an Israeli Jewish settler while they were praying in the Ibrahim Mosque in HebronSince then, it and other Palestinian groups have resorted to suicide bombings, usually in retaliation for Israeli assassinations of their leaders and attacks on the Palestinian population. These increased dramatically during the second uprising against Israeli military occupation that erupted in the year 2000. Despite Israel’s continued attacks on civilians areas, its killing of more than 700 Palestinian children, its destruction of Palestinian property and its economic siege of Gaza, Hamas has maintained its commitment to a unilateral ceasefire since January 2005.

Q. How will the election of Hamas affect the chances of achieving a just peace?

While in this current political climate Israel may find it easier to justify its unilateral actions to the outside world, the Israeli actions of late are not the result of the Hamas election but rather, the Hamas election is a result of Israeli policies that reinforce the military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. Given the extreme imbalance of power on the side of Israel, it is the state of Israel that will preclude a just and peaceful resolution, not the election of Hamas.

For example:

  • Israel has decided to freeze further transfers of the PAs tax revenues, is urging the international community to refrain from all financial assistance to the PA, except for relief aid, and is increasing security checks at crossings between Israel and Gaza. Actions like these however, are not new and have been part of Israel's political economic arsenal against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.

  • Ehud Olmert recent statement's regarding the illegal annexation of the Jordan Valley and major settlements blocks to Israel only continue the long-standing Israeli policy, most recently articulated under Sharon, that all peace agreements protect Israels most essential interests: no return to the 67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

  • It is also worth noting that recently former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to even meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in spite of Abbas recognition of Israel and commitment to the peace process. Rather, Israel continued to pursue a unilateral strategy to redraw its borders, penning the Palestinians into a set of non-contiguous cantons by building an apartheid wall that will allow for the annexation of huge swathes of Palestinian land to Israel.

Q. What can the Palestinians Expect from Hamas?

Despite Hamas’ large majority, it has indicated its desire to form a broad-based government, inclusive of as many factions as possible.[20]

The group is keen to emphasize that they are not interested in radical change in Palestinian society. Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy political bureau chief of Hamas, recently stated, “Fair governance demands that the Palestinian nation be represented in a pluralistic environment. A new breed of Islamic leadership is ready to put into practice faith-based principles in a setting of tolerance and unity.”[21] He added, “Alleviating the debilitative conditions of occupation, and not an Islamic state, is at the heart of our mandate (with reform and change as its lifeblood).”[22]

It will be difficult, however, for Hamas to ameliorate the deteriorating conditions that make up life in the Occupied Territories. The closures, checkpoints, and other harsh measures of Israel’s military occupation, have led to an unemployment rate of nearly 70% in some sectors. As long as the occupation remains in place and Palestinians are confined to Bantustans, it will be very difficult for any Palestinian authority or government – with or without Hamas – to meet the needs of its people.

Q. What should the US role be?

Without in any way condoning terrorism by any party to the conflict, the US should do the following:

  • As a signatory of the Fourth Geneva Convention that protects the welfare of populations living under occupation, the US should ensure that Israel abides by its obligations as an Occupying Power vis-à-vis the welfare of the Palestinian population.

  • The US should put its financial and diplomatic weight behind the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed after Israel’s occupation began in 1967 that calls for a full Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights to April 9 1967 “Green Line.” This is grounded in the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and provides for the rights of all states in the region to live in peace in security.

  • Once all Israeli soldiers and settlers have been withdrawn from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the US should lead the international community in enabling Palestinian people to fulfill their right to self-determination, as reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and their right of return under UN Resolution 194.

  • We call on US Congress to vote no on HR4681, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. This draconian act has several very troubling provisions. It restricts much needed economic and developmental aid to the Palestinian population and leaves the disbursal of emergency aid to the discretion of Israel the occupying power, it seeks to deny the Palestinian Authority and the PLO diplomatic representation in the US, it targets all UN agencies responsible for protecting and advocating for Palestinian rights, and it allows for the US and Israel to deem any Palestinian area not complying with the provisions of the resolution, “terrorist sanctuaries.” This act wrongly and severely punishes the Palestinian people for exercising their democracy and it will only further exacerbate tension and violence in the region.



[1] For more background and about Hamas, see “Enter Hamas: the Challenges of Political Integration” by the International Crisis Group http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=3886 and earlier reports.

[2] These included Fateh, which dominated the Palestine Liberation Organization since its founding in the 1960s, and the smaller Popular and the Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian Communist Party

[3] “Hamas: Its Origins and Evolutions” NPR February 17, 2006 http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/transcripts/2006/feb/060217.gradstein.html

[4] Blanc, Jarrett "Palestinian Election Analysis: How Hamas Won the Majority" by of IFES at http://www.ifes.org/westbank-project.html?projectid=howhamaswon

[5] The Oslo Accords, the first of a series of agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, were signed on the White House lawn by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993. The Oslo Accords led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its responsibility for some public services.

[6] Bennis, Phyllis Foreign Policy in Focus “Talking Points #7: Hamas wins the Palestinian elections” January 27, 2006 http://www.fpif.org/fpiftp/3095

[7] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Exit Poll Results on the Election Day of the Second Palestinian Parliament http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2006/exitplcfulljan06e.html#demographics

[8] MSNBC “Foreign leaders stunned at Hamas victory” January 26, 2006 http://msnbc.msn.com/id/11046430/

[9] Jewish Voice for Peace “Hamas Wins Palestinian Elections: Questions you need answered” http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/article_292.shtml

[10] Bennis, Phyllis Foreign Policy in Focus “Talking Points #7: Hamas wins the Palestinian elections” January 27, 2006 http://www.fpif.org/fpiftp/3095

[11] Jihad is a word used to signify struggle of all forms, including military or peaceful resistance.

[12] Saree Makdisi “Plan to Separate is Nothing New” Institute for Middle East Understanding 2.17.2006 http://imeu.net/news/article00505.shtml

[13] Aluff Benn “Israel Mulls Barring Entry of Gazans After Hamas is Sworn In” Haaretz 2.16.2006 http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/spages/683417.html

5 Martin Asser “Will Hamas Ever Recognize Israel” BBC 2.7.2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4686844.stm

[14] http://www.fbi.gov/publications/terror/terror2000_2001.htm

[15] El-Haddad, Leila Al-Jazeera “Israeli Sonic Booms Terrorising Gaza” January 2, 2006 http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/0570CE28-416D-40A8-A643-3D008A52987F.htm

[16] http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2004/p13a.html

[17] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Joint Palestinian Israeli Public Opinion Poll June 30, 2003 http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2003/p8ejoint.html

[18] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Public Opinion Poll #15 March 10-12, 2005

http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2005/p15a.html

[19] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Public Opinion Poll #17 September 28, 2005 http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2005/p17a.html

[20] Greg Myre “Hamas Opens Talks Aimed at Forming Palestinian Government” The New York Times 2.20.2006

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/international/middleeast/20cndmideast.html?hp&ex=1140498000&en=4f8c6e116a37720a&ei=5094&partner=homepage

[21] Mousa Abu Marzook “What Hamas is Seeking” Washington Post January 31, 2006

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/30/AR2006013001209.html

[22] Mousa Abu Marzook “What Hamas is Seeking” Washington Post January 31, 2006

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/30/AR2006013001209.html