Hamas: Background, platform, and U.S. engagement Essay

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Hamas is the leading body of the democratically elected government of Palestine.  The name is short for Harakat alMuqawima alIslamiya, which translates from the Arabic to Islamic Resistance Movement (Abu Amr 1993).  Although there are various accounts of the origins of the group, including that it was started with the direct assistance of the Israeli Secret Service, or the Shin Bet in the 1970s, the details are under some dispute (Williams 2007).  However, most mainstream accounts indicate that the organization is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was present in Gaza as early as 1946 (Sandhu 2003).

Officially begun in its present form in the wake of the first Intifada, or uprising, it marked the beginning of the true political revival of the Islamic forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the face of Israeli occupation on the one hand, and the national  secular forces led by the PLO on the other (Abu-Amr 1993).  Indeed, according to Palestinian sources, it was the Palestinian uprising which led the previously docile Muslim Brotherhood to engage in violent resistance for the first time in the region under the cloak of Hamas, an organization it created specifically for that purpose (1993).

            Soon after its official start, Hamas began to operate on its own, apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon became a leading force in opposition to the Israeli Occupation, as well as what many saw as the corruption of the secular PLO forces before the return of Arafat in 1994 (Ruben, Ruben 2003).  It was during this time that the group was indirectly supported by Israel with the goal of further dividing the Palestinian resistance against the occupation (Roy 2004).  However, as Hamas began to gain more influence in the mid-1980s, particularly under the influence of Abd alAziz Rantisi, and the group began to focus more on the occupation than its conflicts with the secular PLO, Israel began to withdraw support and begin direct engagement (Mishal,  Sela 2000).

            In addition to the Abd al Rantisi, other founding members during the beginning of the first Intifada were Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Abd alFattah Dukhan, Muhammad Shama, and Salah Shehadah among others (Gunning 2004).  These leaders established a charter in August of 1988.  Key in the document is the idea that all of Palestine is Islamic land, and that it can in no circumstances be surrendered to the Jewish State or any other non-Muslim government.

            The structure of Hamas is based on three separate divisions”the political wing, the intelligence wing, and the military wing.  However, throughout the 1990s the organization was most well known for its charitable activities, and conducted numerous welfare programs including health, education, and food distribution programs to the Palestinian population (Hilal 2006).

            Hamas remained a strong socially active agency throughout the 90s, and specifically rejected the Oslo accords negotiated by Arafat and the PLO.  During this time it also continued its opposition of the PLO and began to use suicide bombings to exert pressure against the Israeli government and people.

However, by 1994 Sheikh Ahmad Yassin penned a now famous letter in which he indicated that the organization would declare a ceasefire or hodna, with Israel if it withdrew from all of the occupied territories (Rantisi, Yassin, Abu Shanab, al-Zahar 2002).  Israel did not accept the offer.  Instead, Israel continued its occupation and operations against Hamas members and leadership.  This escalated to a fever pitch when Israeli forces assassinated Sheikh Yassin on March 22, 2004 while exiting a Mosque in his wheelchair along with eight bystanders (Zunes, 2004).

            After the death of Arafat in 2004, Hamas continued to gain support.  This, according to commentators was also due to rampant corruption and despotism among the leaders of the Fatah (PLO) government, which was largely made up of repatriated exiles from Tunisia (Brynen 1995).  Further, by 2005, Hamas had announced that it would participate in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and in 2006 managed to gain a majority holding, in effect becoming the new leadership of Palestine (Shikaki, 2006) in the wake of democratic elections considered by international independent election officials to be of the highest quality in the region (2006).

            Of particular interest to Western governments and Israel is how the platform on which Hamas has achieved its victory has transformed over time.  Prior to the 2006 elections, Hamas published its official platform.  According to some, it was striking in its overall moderation in comparison to the original 1988 charter, as well as the speech and rhetoric coming from its leadership during the years of the first Intifada (Hroub 2006).    In particular, some noticed the glaring absence of any mention of the outright destruction of Israel, or of a Palestinian state from the river to the sea (2006).

Although there was a tone in favor of armed resistance, exemplified by the statement that Palestine is ¦currently at a stage of national liberation, and it has the right to act to regain its rights and end the occupation by using all means, including armed resistance (2006), it does not specifically call for that state to occupy all of the pre 1948 borders. However, it does specify that the capital of that state must be Jerusalem (2006).  In addition, and of particular interest to Israelis, is the inclusion of a statement that insists that Palestinian refugees must have a right to return, similar to the current Israeli practice.  In particular, it asserts that this right is an ¦inalienable right about which no political concessions should be made¦ (2006).

            Currently, post election, Hamas platform has become even more moderate, perhaps tempered by the reality of on the ground government, coupled with the strident resistance from the United States, the Israeli government, and other Western nations to accept the democratically elected government.  For example, the now famous 2006 joint Fatah (PLO)-Hamas platform specifically calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands occupied in 1967 (Hroub, 2006), this is both a clear departure from the 1988 charter (river to the sea), as well as the pre-election stance, which did not specify the 1967 borders.

  This, many argue, signifies an implicit recognition of the State of Israel, something many within and outside of Hamas would never have imagined in its early days. It must also be noted that even Hamas wording of its violent resistance stance has changed subtly since its establishment, and now is mentioned with particular emphasis upon resistance to the occupation in specific, rather than the liberation of all of Palestine pre-1948 (2006).

            Sadly, in spite of these significant changes, the United States heads several nations in its refusal to recognize Hamas as the majority government of the Palestinian People.  Additionally, United States continues to deal only with non-Hamas government ministers, and adamantly refuses aid to the Palestinian people (AP 2006).

  This seems particularly surprising in that while Hamas stance has significantly changed, and according to the Jordan Times, has practically fulfilled the conditions of the Quartet (GPA 2007), by implicitly recognizing Israel, approving the use of negotiations (as opposed to violence) as a legitimate channel for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and assuring its respect for all previous accords.  One wonders exactly what the United States wants from the Palestinian side, but for a name change of its ruling government.

Of course, the United States stance is that Hamas is a terrorist organization that engages in suicide bombings and other terrorist acts.  Because of that it cannot support such a government.  Second, according to the U.S., Hamas must go beyond implicit recognition of Israel and directly acknowledge its legitimacy.  As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated in a 2006 interview, You cannot have one foot in politics and another in terror (AP, 2006). Third, the organization must officially change the wording in its charter, reflecting its acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state. As Rice asserted, You cant have a peace process if youre not committed to the right of your partner to exist (2006).

However, there are convincing arguments against this stance.  One of the most obvious is that the United States formerly considered Fatah (PLO) to be a terrorist organization, and it nonetheless directly recognized and accepted the group along with Yasser Arafat regardless.  Secondly, the United States has no problem dealing with Fatah in spite of the fact that it also has an armed wing that carries out as many or more attacks against Israel than Hamas.  Third, insisting upon a war of semantics does little to help either side.  Instead it shows a rigidity that betrays the continuing its continuing bias toward Israel that enables the occupation to continue.

Hamas leads the democratically elected government of Palestine.  For all of the rhetoric in favor of democracy in general, (specifically, rhetoric that praises Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East), the United States refusal to acknowledge the Hamas government smacks of a hypocrisy that all but eliminates any shred of legitimacy the United States might have enjoyed as a honest broker for peace.

Given that the United States has had a history of influencing significant change in the region in helping to foster peace where there was previously none (Camp David), it only seems that the U.S. should do all in its power to act as a true facilitator between the two nations.  Clearly it can only do this if it is on some level impartial.  Hamas has recognized Israel, if not in word then in deed.  The continued boycott of the Palestinian government will only serve to prolong the long-term suffering in the region.  Engaging Hamas would be a great step toward new peace negotiation, instead of the status quo which only serves to delay hope indefinitely and without just cause.


Abu-Amr, Ziad. 1993. Hamas: A Historical and Political Background. Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. 22, No.4, pp. 5-19.

Brynen, Rex. 1995. The Neopatrimonial Dimension of Palestinian Politics. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 pp. 23-36

GPA. German Press Agency. Staff. 2007 US stance towards Palestinian cabinet disappointing. The Raw Story. Website. 19 March. Retrieved on April 26, 2007, from, http://rawstory.com/news/dpa/US_stance_towards_Palestinian_cabin_03192007.html

Gunning, Jeroen. 2004. Peace with Hamas? The Transforming Potential of Political Participation. International Affairs. Vol. 80 Iss. 2. Pp 233255.

Hilal, Jamil. 2006. Hamass Rise as Charted in the Polls, 1994-2005. Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol XXXV, No.3. Pp. 6-19.

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Roy, Sarah. 2004. Religious Nationalism and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Examining Hamas and the Possibility of Reform. Chicago Journal Of International Law, Vol. 5, Num. 1.

Rubin, Barry M. Rubin, Judith C. 2003. Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Sandhu, Amandeep. 2003. Islam and Political Violence in the Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Palestine. The Review of International Affairs. 1 Oct. Vol. 3. Iss. 1. Pp. 1-12.

Shikaki, Khalil. 2006.  The Palestinian Elections: An Assessment. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3. pp. 17-22

Hroub, Khalid. 2006. A New Hamas through Its new Documents. Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. XXXV, No. 4. Pp. 6-27.

Williams, Dan. 2007. Who helped Hamas? Israeli rivals trade blame. Reuters. 12 Feb.  Retrieved from Web site on April 26, 2007, from, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L12545361.htm

Zunes, Stephen. 2004. Defense of Israeli Assassination Policy by the Bush Administration and Democratic Leaders an Affront to International Law and Israeli Security. Foreign Policy in Focus. Online Journal.  Retrieved on April 26, 2007, from, http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2004/0404yassin.html

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