Hamas: The 20-Year Struggle

Hamas: The 20-Year Struggle

Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- On a rainy night on 23 December 1987, the sound of rainfall was only obscured by the cries of the people who had gathered in the al Mujamaa al Islami (The Islamic Charitable League) in the Sabra district in Gaza.

This definitive meeting that was held by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Gaza with the intention of determining the movement’s position with regards to participating in these unplanned confrontations that were being spearheaded by the Palestinian public. These clashes had broken out following the death of six Palestinians caused by an Israeli truck that had swerved on the road. This confrontation has since become known as ‘Intifadit al Hijara’ (First Intifada, 8 December 1987).Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had remained silent during the debate between the oppositional Old Guard that believed that they could not participate in these confrontations for lack of readiness while the other side; the youthful representatives in the leadership, were adamant that they must contribute to these events. They argued that avoiding it would negate the justification of the organization’s entire existence.

In these confrontations, the youth saw a historic opportunity that would allow the organization to consolidate and implement what it had been calling for in its literature. The zealous youth did not miss the chance to warn that failure to engage in the events and activities of the resistance would lead to many members of the MB to abandon the movement for other Palestinian organizations. Among the figures in attendance were Abdel Fatah Dukhan, one of the top level members of the incumbent Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Mohammed Shamaa, Dr. Ibrahim al Yazouri and Salah Shehade (who later became military commander of what became Hamas’s military wing), Engineer Issa Nashar and Dr. Abdulaziz al Rantissi (who later became the leader of Hamas in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza).

At the end of the meeting, Sheikh Yassin decided in favor of participating in the Intifada activities after a vote determined the decision. This marked the birth of the MB’s resistance wing, which al Rantissi proposed to call the Islamic Resistance Movement  Hamas. At the end of the meeting, al Rantissi was assigned the task of drafting the new movement first statement to affirm its inception as a movement for the “liberation of Palestine”.The movement was launched like a rocket in two directions: military and political, and it managed to reach the peak, the executive authority, in a short period of time (20 years) after Hamas won the legislative elections in January 2006.

But this victory put Hamas in a difficult predicament. According to Dr. Naji Sharab, political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, the Hamas movement derived its legitimacy from the resistance. As such, he argues that it could not have abandoned the resistance when it rose to power; however, he also maintains that it is an incredibly difficult formula since it would not allow Hamas to practice both governance and resistance.
But Hamas was not born of nothing; the new faction employed the MB’s facilitations, which at the time was a large and organized force. A few months later following the launch of Hamas movement, it set up its military wing which it named the Izzedine al Qassam brigades after Syrian cleric Izzedine al Qassam who left Syria and settled in Palestine in the late 1920s and formed a militant organization to fight the British occupation. He died during combat in Yabud village, north of the West Bank in 1935.

Hamas’s decision to not declare its connection with the Izzedine al Qassam brigades meant that the latter continued to carry out its operations against the occupation and to target agents for over a year before it came to be known as the armed wing of Hamas. Moreover, the Izzedine al Qassam brigades used to impose severe restrictions for recruitment into its ranks out of fear of possible infiltration. For that reason, the majority of those who fell in the early confrontation with the occupational force were the pioneering sons of the movement.Although the Muslim Brotherhood’s military experience in Gaza before the First Intifada was very modest, it quickly became the most distinguished military operations against the occupation. The most prominent figure of Hamas’s military leaders was Imad Aqel, a small and gaunt young man who was responsible for the planning and leading of numerous bold operations that resulted in the death and injury of many of the occupation’s soldiers and settlers. The first commander of the movement’s military wing, he was killed in 1992 aged 22.

At one point, Izzedine al Qassam brigades declared that it had formed a cell in the West Bank, with knowledge that the MB presence there is substantially less significant than Gaza. During this time Hamas faced the toughest resistance it had yet to confront, thousands of Hamas members were arrested and a string of assassinations were carried out that killed most of the movement’s leadership and elite, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin . This elimination campaign was overseen by Israeli intelligence service Shabak [internal security service also known as Shin Bet] led by Avi Dichter who is the incumbent Israeli Minister of Internal Defense.

Up until 1994, all of Hamas’s military operations were restricted to Gaza and the West Bank and it had not executed any operations within Israel, however on 5 February of that year, Barukh Goldstein, a Jewish settler carried out the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in al Khalil (Hebron) in which 29 Palestinian were killed after he opened fire on the victims during prayer. The massacre was met by public outrage and caused intense anger among the Palestinian public which was eager to retaliate. Meanwhile the Izzedine al Qassam brigades had managed to recruit a chemical engineering student at Beirzet University (BZU) to its ranks, Yehia Ayash, nicknamed the ‘engineer’ who succeeded in making the first bomb that was used in an operation inside Israel. Soon after, an element from the brigades blew himself up in the Israeli city Afula, which coincided with the 40-day anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.

Ayash became Hamas’s chief bomb-maker and the movement resumed its suicide operations while his name crept up to the top of Israel’s most wanted list. Following these events, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership severely criticized Hamas accusing it of employing these suicide operations to thwart the implementation of the Oslo Accords, which allowed for the creation of a Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. At the beginning of January 1996, Israel killed Yehia Ayash through a mobile phone bomb device which had been given to him by an agent who had befriended his nephew and was staying with him at Ayash’s sister’s house in the northern Gaza Strip.

The decision to eliminate Ayash was taken by then-Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres who was under pressure by former Israeli intelligence chief of Shabak, Carmi Gillon, who was trying to rectify his image after his failure to prevent the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.Perez, as he later announced, had reservations about the assassination operation because he was expecting a ferocious retaliation from Hamas’s side  which is precisely what happened. Hamas dispatched elements from Izzedine al Qassam brigades to the West Bank under the command of Hassan Salama, one of the most prominent leaders of the movement, who led a wave of suicide operations that shook Israel and resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of Israelis at a time when Israel was preparing for legislative elections.

The repercussions included the dramatic upheaval of the balances of power within the internal Israeli arena, when the right wing’s popularity was at its lowest following Rabin’s assassination Hamas’s suicide operations served to justify the political rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party [Likud]. Meanwhile, under intense pressure from Perez and US President Bill Clinton and with the intention of putting an end to the Palestinian suicide operations, late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat issued orders to launch a relentless campaign against Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, which led to the arrest of scores of the movement’s leaders and activists. Hamas members were subjected to severe torture in Palestinian prisons and their institutions were closed down while the movement’s military apparatus was banned and its members were pursued by the Palestinian Authority.

But this campaign did not succeed in preventing what Arafat was trying to avoid the most; the right-wing [Likud] won the elections and Netanyahu formed the Israeli government. The Israeli government froze the implementation of the Oslo Accords, which put Arafat in an awkward position but it also meant that he loosened the iron grip on Hamas and released the movement’s activists from the authority’s prisons.In 1997, Israel was forced to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin who was serving a life sentence after Jordanian security arrested two Mossad agents who were captured after a failed attempt to assassinate Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal.

Sheikh Yassin’s release revived Hamas since it also coincided with the end of prison sentences of several of the movement’s senior leadership figures and with the release of Salah Shehade, Abdulaziz al Rantissi and Ismail Abu Shanab. However, since 1997 until 2000, Hamas has sporadically carried out suicide operations. In 2000, the al Aqsa Intifada [Second Intifada] broke out as a result of Arial Sharon’s provocative visit to al Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount).Initially, Hamas had decided to not participate in the Intifada outbreak since it saw that it had no role to play in it upon the consideration that Arafat had initially encouraged the resistance with the intention of improving his position in negotiations with Israel [by exploiting these outbreaks]. However; after Hamas became aware that the relationship between Arafat and Israel had been severed, it participated with full force in the activities of the uprising.

Hamas became responsible for the majority of the bombings and suicide operations against Israel. It did not heed the inherent lesson in September 11, and the fact is that these new circumstances have made Israel increase its oppression.In April 2002, Israel launched “Operation Defense Shield” against the resistance force in the West Bank, targeting all the Palestinian factions. This blow affected Hamas the most and Israel managed to arrest third-line Hamas figures. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Israel began a string of assassinations that lasted until March 2004. Sheikh Yassin was assassinated; al Rantissi was killed 10 days later, in addition to Ibrahim al Makadmeh, Salah Shehade and Ismail Abu Shanab. However, the plot to assassinate Ismail Haniyeh was foiled.During that time, Hamas had developed and launched its first primitive rocket, al Qassam, which it launched targeting Israeli settlements in Gaza. It later widened its launch radius to include other settlements in the vicinity and resumed its bombing and ambush operations.

During that time, Ariel Sharon proposed the unilateral disengagement plan to remove all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, in addition to the withdrawal of the Israeli army. In September 2005, the Israeli army withdrew from Gaza, which some viewed as a mechanism employed by Sharon for crisis management, but the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, regarded it as a victory for the resistance.Following the implementation of the disengagement plan, Hamas participated for the first time in the legislative elections, and contrary to all opinion polls, won the majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council  but the victory left behind a bitter taste.Hamas formed a government following its victory; however Israel and the world imposed an embargo on Gaza, this resulted in Hamas accusing Mahmoud Abbas and the security apparatus that was under his authority of plotting to overthrow the government. With the deterioration of the economic situation came the steady decline of security and Hamas accused the security apparatus of exacerbating and encouraging this disturbance.

The tension escalated between Haniyeh’s government and Hamas on one side, and Abu Mazen, the security apparatus and Fatah on the other  and such was the showdown. The first stage of the infighting was curbed by the Mecca Agreement on 8 February 2007 and a national unity government was formed. But it was barely three months after the agreement was forged that the clashes erupted again and ended by Hamas seizing Gaza and the flight of the security apparatus from the strip.There is no disagreement amongst political analysts in the Palestinian arena that Hamas has committed a historical error by forming its government. Writer and political analyst Hani al Masri of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) believes that Hamas tried to combine between contradictory things, pointing out that the movement wanted to govern an authority that is governed by the framework of the Oslo Accords, which it rejects.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that Hamas did not learn a lesson from Fatah’s experience and that it “hungered” for power, which is why it is in a major and severe crisis. Al Masri views that Hamas could have endured in the Palestinian political system by being part of the Palestinian Legislative Council; however, without forming a government.He also added that it committed another error when it staged its “coup” and resorted to a military solution, since that has only served to entrench the movement’s situation more gravely.“There is disagreement that the Hamas and its government have been subjected to great harassments and that all parties, including the Palestinian ones, have tries to thwart its experience  however, that does not justify staging a coup.”

Dr. Naji Sharab, political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University told Asharq Al-Awsat that Hamas is calling for a truce with Israel to get out of this predicament, but it will never recognize Israel or the signed agreements and at the same time it is aware that it cannot govern in light of the authority’s relationship with Israel as has been agreed in the Oslo Accords. As for Palestinian writer and political commentator Hani Habib, he believes that Hamas did not win the election by virtue of its religious ideology but because of the Palestinian Authority’s (Fatah movement) bad management and “its embroilment in corruption on every level from the financial to the administrative and political,” he said.

Habib added that this failure on the part of Fatah is what paved the way for Hamas’s victory and that Fatah’s indulgence in corruption and the exploitation of power had led to the absence of self-criticism within the movement. This absence was exploited by Hamas, which is an understandable investment, to reinforce its influence among the Palestinian people.