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MANILA, Philippines – The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on Saturday, October 7, the latest in a decades-long conflict.
Hamas militants breached borders and entered towns and bases controlled by Israeli forces near the Gaza Strip, taking several hostages. On the same day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war on Hamas and launched airstrikes.
“We are at war,” he said. “In war, one needs to be level-headed. I call on all citizens of Israel to unite in order to achieve our highest goal – victory in the war.”
The ongoing conflict is expected to affect thousands, if not millions, of population from both sides. As of Sunday, October 8, at least 677 Israelis and 413 Palestinians had been killed while thousands were injured. The casualty toll is expected to rise as violence unravels.
What are the things we need to know about Hamas? Why did they launch an attack in the first place?
What is Hamas?
Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has been one of the main forces against Israeli occupation in Palestine. It strongly opposes any peace process with Israel.
It is often referred to as a “Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist, militant, and nationalist organization.” At least 85% of the global Muslim population identify themselves as Sunni while 15% subscribed to Shia. Both agree with the basic Islam ideas, but differ on who succeeded Prophet Muhammad as the leader.
Hamas was established in 1987 as a result of the first Palestinian intifada, a series of violent uprisings in response to Israel’s continued military occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Council on Foreign Relations refers to Hamas as a “spin-off of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood,” of which Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder, was a known leader. It shares the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which traces its beginning in Egypt in the 1920s.
According to its charter published in 1988, the Hamas “strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine, for under the wing of Islam followers of all religions can coexist in security and safety where their lives, possessions and rights are concerned. In the absence of Islam, strife will be rife, oppression spreads, evil prevails and schisms and wars will break out.”
It adds that the path towards Palestine liberation is bound to three circles (Palestinian circle, Arab circle, and the Islamic circle), and that each of these plays its own role and duties “in the struggle against Zionism” and that it is a “horrible mistake and a sign of deep ignorance to overlook any of these circles.”
How powerful is Hamas?
Hamas’ armed faction is called the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigades. This armed wing was established in 1991 and named after the Syrian Muslim leader that led nationalist movements.
Hamas itself enjoys a very powerful base not just in Gaza, but in several countries too in the Middle East. In response to the latest attacks, Iraq said that the military operations were a natural result of decades of “systemic oppression” by the “Zionist Occupation authority.”
Hamas is also in alliance with Syria and other groups, such as the Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group that has ruled Lebanon.
Just like Hezbollah, the Hamas is also backed and supported by Iran. An analysis published by The Conversation says “there will be only one winner in the war” and that, “when the smoke settles, only one country’s interests will have been served: Iran’s.”
In 2021, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 53% of Palestinians think that the Hamas was “most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people.”
Hamas currently controls the Gaza Strip, and has been designated as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada, and the European Union.
When did Hamas start exercising control over the Gaza Strip?
The Gaza Strip is a coastal enclave that is one of the two areas governed by Palestine; the other one is the West Bank. It is on the upper side of Israel and just on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The United Nations (UN) estimates the population of the Gaza Strip at 2.1 million people. Of this number, at least 1.7 million are considered Palestine refugees.
It was created in 1948 and controlled by Egypt. Israel took over following its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War until it withdrew its forces in 2005.
Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 after it won the Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year. The seizing of power also happened in the aftermath of a conflict with loyalists to the Fatah movement, which is considered Hamas’ political rival.
Fatah was led by Mahmoud Abbas, who is also a key figure in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which also advocates for an independent Palestinian state.
But while it considers PLO as the “closest to the heart” of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas was “unable to exchange the present or future Islamic Palestine with the secular idea.”
“The Islamic nature of Palestine is part of our religion and whoever takes his religion lightly is a loser,” Hamas said in its 1988 charter.
Why is Hamas engaged in conflict?
Hamas is primarily engaged with conflict because it advocates for the destruction of Israel. It also opposes the peace talks initiated by the PLO in the 1990s. The peace talks led to the Oslo Accords that aimed at giving “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
But a September 2023 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 76% believe that Israel did not follow the accords, while 49% believe that the Palestinian side also did not hold up its part of the treaty.
Hamas’ stand against the peace talks and the ongoing Israeli forces’ occupation led to it consistently carrying out attacks, also in response to the atrocities committed by the other side.
Hamas said its latest movement was mostly caused by Israel’s escalated attacks. In a statement, Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif said that “this is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth.”
What is the impact of the conflict on the Gaza Strip?
The ongoing conflict and past violence have a big impact on civilians, especially those residing on the Gaza Strip.
Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has imposed sanctions that effectively blocked access to the area via land, air, and even sea. Movements of not just goods but also foreign donations have been limited, if not totally restricted.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than half of the population in Gaza live in poverty while 63% are food insecure.
Due to the latest conflict, the UN also monitored at least 123,538 Palestinians had been displaced from their homes in Gaza, as of Sunday, October 8. – with reports from Reuters / Rappler.com