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Israel is at war, and has ordered a complete siege of Gaza after Hamas’s surprise attack on Saturday. Hamas is holding at least 150 hostages, and more than 900 Israelis and more than 600 Palestinians have been killed. As we continue to follow these developments, we’ll take a step back today to focus on Hamas, its aims, and its influence on the region.
Header: What Is Hamas?
Hamas, an Islamist fundamentalist group formed in 1987 as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has controlled the Gaza Strip since it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006—the last time elections were held in Gaza. These elections took place a year after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza. In 2007, Hamas ousted its rival political party, Fatah, from the strip during a military conflict within Gaza. Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, the European Union, Canada, Egypt, and Japan.
What are the group’s long-term goals? First, “what every political party would want in their own country … ascendancy and supremacy,” the historian Arash Azizi told me. “It wants to be the most popular Palestinian party.” Second, Hamas is a member of the Axis of Resistance, Azizi noted. As he explained in The Atlantic yesterday, this unofficial alliance of groups supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran includes Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and several Iraqi and Syrian militias. These groups share key goals, Azizi explained: “the destruction of Israel” and the driving out of all the Jewish people living in the country. Finally, despite the fact that Palestinians “are amongst the most secular societies in the Arab world,” Hamas—a Sunni Islamist party—also wants “an Islamic society.” How it prioritizes between these three goals is a different question, Azizi noted.
The group seeks the elimination of Israel as a country—a point of contrast between it and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the rival political group that controls the West Bank. (The PLO’s official position holds that a Palestinian state could be created in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, though the former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat walked away from American-led negotiations meant to create such a state.) Taken as a collective, Hamas is “a Palestinian nationalist, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, and Islamist organization,” Azizi said. But “like all parties in the world, Hamas is not united … There are certainly parts of Hamas that do not have these more extreme goals.” Some factions, particularly those linked to the devout Palestinian middle class, are “not interested in fighting the Israelis this way, or in alliance with Iran,” he said. “Under the right circumstances, they might even accept, form, and run a state of Palestine without the destruction of Israel … But clearly the faction [of Hamas] that Iran has given a lot of power to is not the latter faction.”
The Hamas charter of 1988 laid out a brazenly anti-Semitic mission. The charter stated: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgment will not come until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” As The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, noted in 2014, “This is a frank and open call for genocide, embedded in one of the most thoroughly anti-Semitic documents you’ll read this side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Hamas issued a new charter in 2017, which retains the group’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist but removes some of the boldest anti-Jewish statements from the 1988 version. However, many Hamas officials have espoused equally strong anti-Semitic statements in the years since this new charter was released.
Key to understanding Hamas is the fact that its goals and those of the Gazan people are not necessarily in alignment. The Gazan people live under an Israeli blockade, backed by Egypt, that severely restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of the region; under Hamas rule, Gazans have reported repression and arbitrary arrests, and Human Rights Watch has chronicled what it calls systemic abuse on the part of Hamas in Gaza. In recent years, Gazan citizens have shown growing discontent with Hamas’s policies. According to The Times of Israel, a 2022 poll found that 53 percent of Gazans agree at least somewhat that Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction; a 2022 Palestinian public-opinion poll found that 71 percent of Palestinians believe there is corruption in Hamas institutions. “We have no idea” how much of the population of Gaza Hamas represents, Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told me, because “there have not been elections there in decades. They’re not a unifying national movement.”
Azizi also reminded me that when Gaza held its last election, in 2006, only 44 percent of Palestinians voted for Hamas: “It won the election by a plurality, not a majority.” Right now, Azizi argued, Hamas is likely more popular in the West Bank than it is in Gaza; “it’s the force that has been fighting Israel, the country that has been putting Gaza under siege, but at the same time, people of Gaza look at Hamas and see a corrupt ruling authority.” Some Palestinians within Gaza have repeatedly protested Hamas, particularly over the past six months, Azizi noted. The Palestinian public-opinion poll from 2022 found that 54 percent of Gazans believe they cannot criticize Hamas’s authority without fear.
Hamas does not represent the whole of the Palestinian people—far from it. But observers of the coming conflict shouldn’t ignore the role of the broader Israeli-Palestinian relationship. “The decades-long delusion that Israel could ignore, manage, shrink, or simply forget its conflict with its Palestinian neighbors has been a costly blunder,” Azizi wrote in The Atlantic yesterday. “The Iranian regime is arming Palestinians and driving them toward its own murderous agenda vis-à-vis Israelis. But Israel’s continued subjugation of Palestinians is what allows such a festering wound to exist in the first place, giving Tehran an easy issue to exploit.”
What does Hamas want from this latest, unprecedented round of attacks? A spokesperson for the terror group has said that it wants to “liberate all Palestinian prisoners” from Israel and end Israel’s “provocations” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, specifically at Al-Aqsa Mosque. But the experts I spoke with struggled to understand how Saturday’s brutal attacks will help Hamas achieve its stated aims. “It’s hard for me to put my analytical hat on and figure out why Hamas would view this in their interest, because it’s so surely going to be terrible for them and for all the people in Gaza and probably the West Bank as well,” Cambanis told me. “It somewhat defies my 20 years of understanding how they operate.”
“This Hamas victory might prove Pyrrhic,” Natan Sachs wrote in The Atlantic on Saturday. “In fact, Hamas itself might have been surprised by the extent of its initial success. The trauma in Israel today should give pause to those thinking that Israel will simply acquiesce to a short tit for tat. As bad as things have been in Gaza in the past two decades—and they have been terrible—the coming weeks could prove even worse.”