Geopolitics in the Middle East and West Asia have been reshaped by Hamas’s recent attacks on Israel. This piece explores Hamas’ emergence, leadership, and political involvement in order to gain a better understanding of its role and importance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
By Pranay Sharma
- Hamas, an Islamist militant movement, is best known for its armed resistance to Israel and has been involved in several armed confrontations with Israeli forces
- West Bank and Gaza were both occupied by Israel after it won the Six-Day War against the Arab countries in 1967. Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005
- The Oslo Accords had set 1999 as the deadline to end the Israel-Palestine conflict—which has so far proved elusive
- after the dust settles, if action against Hamas does not meet the expectations of the Israeli people, it could jeopardise Netanyahu’s political survival
THE October 7 attack on Israel that stunned the Israeli establishment and the world has catapulted Hamas as the most powerful Palestinian entity currently dominating the political discourse on the Middle East. Largely, it is Hamas’ action that is behind the ongoing war. But it has also been able to force the international spotlight back on the Palestine issue.
More significantly perhaps, it has destroyed, at least for some time, American President Joe Biden’s plan to bring about a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It was felt that if Biden’s plan worked it would have led to the remaining Arab and Muslim countries also establishing normal ties with Israel in the near future.
This in turn would have diluted the Palestinian issue, which had already been put on the backburner, as realignment was happening between countries in the region and also with Israel.
However, when the war finally comes to an end, how will Hamas be viewed by the Israelis and the Palestinians, remains a big question.
MOST SOPHISTICATED ATTACK
This attack on Israel was far more sophisticated than any that came before it. However, Hamas’ assault will also be remembered for its savagery and brutality.
Hamas fired over 5000 rockets at Israeli towns and settlements from the Gaza Strip and 1000 of its fighters entered Israel from road, sea and air, in a well-coordinated operation. It is clear Hamas had been preparing for the attack over months and without allowing the Israeli intelligence any knowledge of the assault.
Israel’s sensors were attacked and its security cameras were disabled as Hamas made use of advanced electronic warfare, jamming Israeli communications systems. But nearly 1400 people were killed that included soldiers, old and infirmed men and women, mothers and their children and a number of Israeli youths.
Many women were also raped and abused.
Hamas also took away about 150 hostages with them, though some have since been released. The attack managed to shatter Israel’s image of invincibility.
Israel has not been so overwhelmed since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when it faced a similar surprise attack from Egypt and Syria. In response to Hamas’ attack, Israel decided to collectively punish Palestinians in the Gaza Strip
Israel has not been so overwhelmed since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when it faced a similar surprise attack from Egypt and Syria. In response to Hamas’ attack, Israel decided to collectively punish Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Gaza, a 41 km long, 12 km wide exclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, has been under an Israeli-led land, sea and air blockade since 2007. For decades it has prevented people and goods from freely entering or leaving Gaza, where 2.3 million Palestinians live. It is often called an open-air prison.
Israel has also responded by relentlessly firing and bombing Gaza from the air, killing thousands of Palestinians, destroying buildings and demolishing a number of neighbourhoods.
After cutting off the supply of food, medicine, power, water and other necessities to the people, the Israeli army has forced thousands of Palestinians to flee from their homes before its ground assault on Gaza.
Though some food, medicine and other items have been allowed to come in and power and water connection restored to some extent, it has done little to ease people’s misery.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas. So far, he has killed over 7000 Palestinian residents of Gaza. Indications suggest the death toll will rise further as the Israeli ground assault continues. But what is Hamas and can it be destroyed?
Structure and Leadership
Hamas is an Islamist militant movement and one of the two major Palestinian political parties that governs people in the Gaza Strip. The other Palestinian territory, West Bank, is governed by the Palestinian Authority, dominated by its rival, Al Fatah.
Nearly three million Palestinians live there along with 670,000 Israelis, who have been illegally settled in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
In a way, Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Hamas have similar approaches towards each other. Likud does not believe in an independent Palestine state. It wants to destroy any attempts at achieving that goal.
Similarly, Hamas does not believe in Israel’s right to exist and wants to destroy it.
Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) founded by a wheelchair-bound Palestinian cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He has since been killed by the Israelis.
Hamas is best known for its armed resistance to Israel and has been involved in several armed confrontations with Israeli forces in past years.Yassin became an activist in the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo (Egypt) and established Hamas as its political arm in Gaza in December 1987.
Hamas has been opposed to any compromise with Israel.
It employed suicide bombing for the first time in April 1993 in the run-up to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to sign the Oslo Accords. The accords had given temporary rights to Palestinians to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Some years before the negotiations in Oslo, Arafat had renounced violence and recognised Israel and its people’s right to live in peace. Rabin in turn acknowledged the newly created Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Arafat as the sole representative of the Palestinians.
Gaza, a 41 km long, 12 km wide exclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, has been under an Israeli-led land, sea and air blockade since 2007. For decades it has prevented people and goods from freely entering or leaving Gaza, where 2.3 million Palestinians live. It is often called an open-air prison
The Oslo Accords had also set 1999 as the deadline to end the Israel-Palestine conflict—which has so far proved elusive. It had also set up the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and given partial civil control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Hamas rejected the accords and refused to recognise either the Palestinian Authority or the State of Israel.
In the early 2000s, Hamas spearheaded the second intifada and launched several violent attacks against Israel with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Tanzim militia of Fatah.
Hamas has a number of wings, like political, military, and social that perform different functions. It also has an overarching consultative body known as the politburo that operates in exile. Local committees deal with grassroots-level issues in Gaza and the West Bank.
The political head of the organisation is Ismail Haniyeh who replaced its long-time leader Khaled Meshaal in 2017. The day-to-day affairs in Gaza are overseen by Yahya Sinwar and Issam al-Da’alis is its de facto Prime Minister.
The two commanders of Hamas’s military wing, the Izzad-Din-al-Qassam Brigades, that spearheaded the October 7 attack are Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa.
West Bank and Gaza were both occupied by Israel after it won the Six-Day War against the Arab countries in 1967. Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005 when it unilaterally withdrew from the area to boost its international image. It gave the Palestinians the partial right to govern these areas though military and security were kept under Israeli control. Hamas won the Palestinian provincial Assembly elections in 2006 and after driving out Fatah fighters, took control of the Gaza Strip. But it refused to renounce violence or recognise Israel. This led Israel and Egypt to seal their two main borders, which allowed people in Gaza contact with the outside world.
The blockade severely curtailed the supply of food, medicine, water, power and other necessities to Gaza which has turned even more severe now.
However, despite the blockade, Hamas was able to build its military capacity.
Over the years its arsenal and capability have improved significantly. It is suspected that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah (a Lebanese militant group) helped Hamas to build its military capacity. But despite the attack on Israel that has currently brought Hamas to the limelight, militarily it is no match to the Israeli Defense Force, regarded as the most powerful army in the region.
Hamas has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States and other Western countries.
Though US President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State and Defense Secretary visited Israel after the attack by Hamas and extended its full political and military support, it does not want Israel to re-occupy Gaza.
But the evolving situation in Gaza has also posed a serious challenge for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
In recent months he has been facing a series of crises, though the Hamas attack would certainly be the worst and most challenging.
But before the attack, Netanyahu was already under pressure as he faced countrywide protests for months when he attempted to bring a controversial judicial reform.
Netanyahu was also under attack for forming a government with the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.
The Israeli Prime Minister in recent years has refused all suggestions for peace talks with the Palestinians. Instead, he has given in to the demands of his coalition partners on legitimising the settlement on encroached Palestinian land.
His decision to deploy troops in the Al Aqsa Mosque complex to regulate and restrict the entry of Muslim worshippers has been a major contributor to the growing resentment in the larger Islamic world.
The Al Aqsa Mosque is regarded as the third most important religious site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
But Hamas’ attack is widely seen as the failure of the Israeli security and intelligence establishment. It has also been humiliating as the rag-tag army of Hamas managed to break the myth about Israel’s invincibility.
For Netanyahu’s carefully crafted image of a tough and uncompromising leader, the emerging scenario is therefore a big challenge. At present a national unity government has been formed where his political opponents have also been brought in to meet the emergency situation. But once the dust settles down and if the action against Hamas does not meet the expectations of the Israeli people, especially the hardliners, it could jeopardise Netanyahu’s political survival.
In such an event, the pending corruption cases against him could be revived since he will no longer enjoy the immunity of the Prime Minister’s office against prosecution.
However, ground assault against Hamas could lead to house-to-house fighting, large numbers of casualties of innocent Palestinians and endanger the lives of the hostages.
If there is large-scale killing, it could even draw Iran, Hezbollah and other forces into the conflict and open new fronts for Israel while widening the war to other parts of the region.
This could increase pressure on the US President to intervene with Israel to end its Gaza operation and create space for peace. Whether this would satisfy Netanyahu and make him feel confident to face the Israeli people is not clear. But since his dependence on the US during the current war increased significantly, the Israeli Prime Minister might not have the same room as he had earlier, to defy the American President.
However, this is also a paradoxical situation as currently, Biden’s credibility with the Arab leaders and most countries in the Global South is at an all-time low.
However, India has strong ties with Israel. Israel is its strategic partner and has been cooperating with the country in a wide range of areas, including defence, security and intelligence.
The Indian Prime Minister came out with a strong reaction condemning Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and expressing solidarity with the Israeli leadership, who had adopted a more balanced position on the ongoing conflict.
India had launched ‘Operation Ajay’ to get the 18,000 Indians in Israel to a safe and secure place.
But subsequently, Modi has also spoken to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressing his condolences for the death of innocent people after the bombing of a hospital in Gaza. Abbas is a member of the Fatah party, a group that has had ongoing conflict with Hamas.
Hamas won the Palestinian provincial Assembly elections in 2006 and after driving out Fatah fighters, took control of the Gaza Strip. But it refused to renounce violence or recognise Israel. This led Israel and Egypt to seal their two main borders, which allowed people in Gaza contact with the outside world
India has sent aircraft carrying, medicines and other essential supplies to help the Palestinians in Gaza.
India’s stakes in the Gulf countries are also high. It is India’s main source of energy and also has over nine million Indians living and working there. Moreover, Modi has strong ties at an individual level with most of the leaders of the Gulf and Arab countries.
Additionally, India has entered into the mega infrastructure project India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) that is being supported by the US. Therefore, while striking a balance between the two, India has called for a cessation of violence and return to negotiations and early restoration of peace in the region.
But when the dust settles down, what will happen to Hamas?
Netanyahu’s attempt to decimate Hamas may be successful. When the war ends it might not be left with much firepower and zeal to fight Israel.
In addition, after some serious introspection, the Palestinians in Gaza could end up blaming Hamas for aggravating their suffering.
This could lead Palestinian Authority President Abbas to emerge as a top leader of Palestine. However, an alternate scenario is also possible.
Despite the Israeli army’s attempts and operations, Hamas could re-emerge as a strong force. It could also continue to enjoy support from Palestinians as the only force that has been fighting for their cause.
Irrespective of what happens to Hamas, it should be kept in mind that Hamas was not the cause but the effect of the Palestinians being denied their legitimate right for an independent homeland. Unless Israel comes to terms with that reality, the Palestinian issue will continue to resurface in different forms and shapes.