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The name Hamas - acronym for the Arabic translation of Movement for Islamic Resistance - first appeared on a flyer against Israel in 1987. The most important figure within the movement was Sheykh Ahmad Yassin, a paraplegic cleric known for his virulent sermons against the Jewish State. He had studied at the Al Azhar University in Cairo and had joined the Brotherhood. Yassin worked with his "Islamic Association" that was allowed to operate by Israeli authorities in 1977. It dedicated its efforts to proselytism and provided health care and education for the poorest households. At the same, Yassin spread his radical opinions in both religion and politics among Gaza's mosques.

Yet the history of Hamas begins on the year preceding the flyer, 1986, with the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood cell in the Occupied Territories. During a secret meeting in Hebron, seven associates of the Brotherhood decided to create a new organization. Among them were Ahmad Yassin, Sheikh Hassan Yusef from Gaza, Jamal Hamami from Jerusalem, Ayman Abu Taha from Gaza, Mohamad Jamal al Natsheh from Hebron, Jamal Mansour from Nablus and Mahmoud Muslih from Ramallah.

In 1987 the big leap forward: Yassin officially announced the creation of Hamas alongside influential people such as Abdul Aziz Rantissi, a doctor, just like many of the most important figures within the Muslim Brotherhood. At this stage Hamas was not a terrorist group, but only a political one. Its armed wing, the Ezzedin al Qassem brigade, will see the light only several years later.

The following year, in August 1988, the Movement puts its statute - and radical thesis - into writing: the essence of which is the fight against the existence of Israel. The organization was headed by Sheikh Yassin and comprised a Consultative Council, the "Shura", a political office, and the Dawa, the "call", for all proselytism and humanitarian activities.

But why had Israel - which then controlled the Gaza Strip - allowed Yassin to set up his organization without intervening against an organism whose purpose was the destruction of the Israeli State itself?

hamas leaders

The enemy of my enemy...

The answer to this question is of machiavellian simplicity: the OLP (Organization for the Liberation of Palestine) was (and still is) a secular organization where only a small faction, led by Sheykh Tamimi, represented the islamic wing of the movement. Allowing Hamas to spread its influence automatically diminished the power and the hegemony of Yasser Arafat. In other words, in that historical moment, the OLP was the real threat, not Hamas.

Furthermore, Tel Aviv's evaluation - partly mistaken -  was that the link between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas would have helped Israel in combating this political-religious phenomena. The Brotherhood was banned in Egypt where repression against radical islamism had increased after Sadat's assassination in 1981. They were strictly monitored in Jordan where it was still not clear whether they intended to go undercover or work in plain sight. They had been wiped out in Syria by Hafez Assad after the 1982 rebellion in Hama.

The reasoning behind Israel's stance was that the repression against the Brotherhood in the Arab countries would have allowed, when needed, Tel Aviv to eliminate Hamas and circumscribe its activity to the Gaza Strip. Concentrating the most radical Palestinian wing to a single area made the military option more favorable. In basic terms, Israel apparently adopted a self-damaging tactic for a wider strategic objective: the weakening of its arch-enemy Arafat.

This ruthless policy had already been adopted in the past. During the so-called "Black September" of 1979 when King Hussein of Jordan had attacked and chased the Palestinian out his territory, Israel had allowed the Palestinian Fedayn to sneak out through the West Bank and into Lebanon. At that time it was far more important for Israel to destabilize its Arab neighbors than to eliminate Palestinian organizations.

But why had the Muslim Brotherhood favored the creation of a satellite structure instead of working directly with the Palestinians inside the Occupied Territories?

Pretending to be separate

The decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to help create Hamas lied in the relationship between the Brotherhood, Egypt and Syria. The Islamic movement wanted to keep its troublesome political co-existence with the regime in Cairo separated from its radical opposition to Damascus.

If Hamas pursued its Jihad against Israel (and it was not much appreciated by Mubarak) the Brotherhood in Cairo could always appear as not being party to it. On the other hand, if Israel was attacked Hamas would have obtained Syria's support, which they could not have had they been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was hence necessary that the two organizations appear distinct without harming each other. When this option was chosen Hamas did not have the amount of followers, nor the structures outside Gaza it has now. In Jordan the movement's representative, Ibrahim Ghoshe, spoke to local authorities under the double identity of Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood.

Targeting the leaders

Sheikh Yassin was arrested in 1989 for the killing of two Palestinian informers and was sentenced to life in jail. This did not prevent Hamas from expanding and strengthening its role. Yassin was released in 1997 following talks between Israel and Jordan.  His freedom was exchanged with that of two Mossad agents held in Amman. Once free, he immediately went back to his preaching and menacing of Israel. But now he had become a threat and was put on the black list of terrorists to be eliminated. Following a first failed attempt in September 2003 - Yassin was slightly wounded in a plane bombing - the Sheikh was killed on March 22, 2004, when a missile from a helicopter struck him while leaving a mosque.

By then Hamas could walk even without its founder. Yassin's place was taken by Abdal Aziz al Rantissi, a figure arrested several times by the Israelis. Al Rantissi was also black listed and was killed about a month after his nomination on April 17, 2004. The same technique was employed: a missile from a helicopter. But yet another leader was ready to take his place: it was Khaled Meshal who, while living in Amman, had survived a poisoning attempt by the Mossad in 1997. Meshal had moved the headquarters of Hamas to Damascus in 1999.

An unavoidable partner

By 2004 Hamas had become a military and political force that extended its influence well beyond the Gaza Strip and into the West Bank, challenging the PLO's supremacy. It had achieved what Israelis had wanted since 1987: the weakening of the PLO. At the same time it continued to threaten Israel and the PLO. It also continued to lead Palestinians towards more  radical positions.

At the same time, Hamas fought Israel and was contrary to all negotiation attempts - like the ones attempted by PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas. In 2006 Hamas won the majority in the Palestinian elections. While this happened we witnessed a correlated effect: the more Israel posed harsh negotiating conditions to the Palestinians, the greater was the prestige and influence exerted by Hamas.

meshaal abbas
Meshal e Abbas

Hamas had also become an actor for several countries and regimes by developing its very own foreign policy. On Libya's behalf, the Islamic Resistance Movement negotiated an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and Tripoli. Hamas stepped in to solve the controversy between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Geddafi on the spoils of the shiite cleric Mousa Sadr who disappeared - maybe killed - during a trip to Libya in 1978. Today Tripoli has decided to allow a Lebanese judge to participate in the re-opening of the case.

The latest act that has made of Hamas a vital actor for the solution of the Palestinian problem is the recent negotiation for the liberation of the Israeli soldier Ghilad Shalit. The Movement, even though it is still considered a terrorist organization, has forced Netanyahu to the negotiating table and allowed for the release of 1027 Palestinian detainees. Talks were complex and participated by numerous actors over a period of 5 years. This was a blow for Israel, which was forced to negotiate by its own domestic public opinion. It was also a blow for Abu Mazen and any residual hope for a two States solution.

The Arab Spring

The future of the Palestinian cause depends on this new evolution: from Hamas terrorist organization to Hamas political organization. From Hamas rogue group to Hamas negotiating partner. In other words, without Hamas, or rather without room for this movement's requests, a negotiated solution to the Palestinian question is presently extremely unlikely.

This is probably one of the reasons that have lead the PLO and Hamas to try to reconcile and possibly form a government of national unity. Abu Mazen has been re-structuring his party in order to allow other Palestinian groups to come together under a unique organization. It is in this spirit that a Palestinian Electoral Commission was formed to allow a new round of legislative and presidential elections in the Occupied Territories. There have also been talks about the liberation of prisoners.

The reconciliation between the two movements has one common denominator: the PLO needs to review its moderate stances that are not producing any result in negotiations with the Israelis. The recent failure to obtain UN recognition of the Palestinian State being their latest failure. On the other hand, Hamas needs to reposition itself on a less radical stance. This could hence be a marriage of interest that could burst into real love. We'll wait and see if this reconciliation takes place and, foremost, whether Israel or other Palestinian actors will exacerbate the situation on the ground to make Hamas' de-radicalization more difficult.

The fall of Mubarak in Egypt can surely bring on a multiplier effect in the long term on Hamas' influence and power thanks to the greater support they will receive from the mother organization - the Muslim Brotherhood - and from the territorial contiguity with Egypt. In the past this had limited the movement's military aspirations, but today it could turn out to be in  Hamas' interests. The same can be said of what is happening in Tunisia, the new government in Jordan and the role of islamic parties in Morocco.

The Arab Spring has also created problems to Hamas and especially in its relationship with Syria. Many medium to low officials are leaving Damascus and even Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshal, could leave soon. Hamas' new political course is in opposition to Bashar al Assad's repression of dissent. The Syrian regime has also been officially condemned by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas' stance will lead to a divergence with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, who continue to support Assad, and thus to the inevitable loss of Iranian political, financial and military backing.  The need to find a new host country for its leaders also pushes Hamas on milder positions. Surely enough Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Turkey will never host a movement dedicated to the armed struggle.

hamas soldiers

A new Hamas

In a recent meeting in Cairo with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' leader Khaled Meshal spoke about the transformation of his movement from "armed resistance" to "popular resistance". He also underlined that the movement will not disarm, at least for the time being. Meshal's statement could pave the way for a cease fire with Israel. Furthermore, for the first time since its founding, Hamas seems to have accepted the idea of a Palestinian State within the 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital. This implies the recognition of Israel in the remaining portion of Palestine. By doing so, Hamas is shifting from a bilateral and military confrontation with Israel alone to a multilateral political arena.

The new political Hamas has also influenced the leadership in Gaza. Over the last weeks, the Palestinian PM, Ismail Haniyeh, has left the Strip for the first time since 2007. Haniyeh toured several Arabic countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Qatar and Bahrein. Hamas in Gaza has a domestic problem which will have to be taken into account: the more it shifts towards negotiated positions, the more the Islamic Jihad gains proselytes in Gaza. History repeating itself.

The return of Hamas in the Arab hive following the dismissal of their Iranian supporters and the new geo-strategic situation in the Middle East has surely made the movement more flexible, thus opening up new political opportunities for the future. We'll have to wait and see whether this transformation will be a tactical or strategic initiative.