Hamas’s Beginnings Inform Its Approach Today

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article in the journal’s special issue examines the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Hamas, and its conflict against the PLO. 

Entering its fourth month of its war against Hamas, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal of “absolute victory” is still elusive as the country’s armed forces expands its assault south into Gaza’s second largest city, Khan Younis. 

Despite Israel’s efforts to undermine and discredit, Hamas’s popularity has increased in the West Bank and Gaza. 90% of Palestinians polled rejected Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA), an established rival of Hamas. The gains by Hamas come as Washington continues to call for the revitalization of the PA to take back control of both territories when the war comes to an end. 

Support for Hamas has also begun to spill over to neighboring Jordan. Citizens have been public in their anger towards Israel and its supporters and rising frustrations have sparked increased support for Hamas and its military wing. Veteran journalist Osama al-Sharif told al-Monitor that “Since Oct. 7, the popularity of Hamas has shot through the roof… As a resistance movement fighting a ‘heroic war’ against one of the toughest armies in the world, Hamas has endeared itself to the majority of Jordanians.”  

These modern sentiments have been echoed for decades, as Palestinian affairs specialist Michael Jubran and strategic affairs consultant Laura Drake demonstrate in Middle East Policy’s new special issue, The Gaza War. Their article examines how the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism, appearing as early as the 1970s, developed into the resilient Hamas.  

Writing in the context of the first Intifada, the authors outline the history of Hamas’ creation and its growth, lapses, and role in the conflict and Palestine.  

Continued contradictions in the ideology and failures of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) created an opening for Islamists, who proposed Islam as an ideological, social, political, and military alternative. Early on, “the Palestinian Islamists… postponed until later the liberation of Palestine. They worked to resocialize society along Islamic lines.” However, in 1987, “the coming of the intifada forced [the Muslim Brotherhood], on pain of losing all legitimacy, to translate into daily practice their call for the liberation of Palestine.” 

Central to the rise of fundamentalism and creation of Hamas was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the president of the Islamic Congress, an association with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon being freed in from an Israeli prison in 1985, Yassin would come to be the face of Palestinian jihad and its unique message that “it is every believer’s duty to struggle for the elimination of Israel, since it is the cutting edge of the West’s general offensive against Islam.” 

The jihad began small but grew rapidly. Jubran and Drake note that this was made possible in part because Israel, in its effort to neutralize the PLO and prevent armed struggle, encouraged its growth for many years, both politically and militarily: “Israel allowed the fundamentalists to enter positions of power in the Gaza religious establishment. From these positions, they gained the leverage to flourish as a political force.”  

It was not until 1986 that “[Israel] realized that, while the fundamentalists had indeed sapped the power of the PLO in Gaza, they had surpassed it in persistence and determination and become far more menacing than the nationalists had been.” 

As the movement shifted from large scope of an “Islamic nation” towards a focus on Palestinian nationalism, “the sheikh took the bold step of creating the basis for a new fundamentalist underground movement” which he named Hamas. Hamas began to overshadow the Muslim Brotherhood, but welcomed its support, and came to become an organization that was effectively structured and capable. 

What made Hamas particularly strong, Jubran and Drake argue, was the organization’s roots in religion. Over the years, Hamas members have proved resilient in the face of Israeli forces. Even as leadership collapsed multiple times throughout the intifada, the “religious revival was fueling the uprising,” and with each loss the organization came back stronger. 

Hamas, with assistance from the Brotherhood, was also able to infiltrate nearly every aspect of daily life, and in doing so, secure its legitimacy and popularity. With this developing popularity, the group would gain the confidence to not only serve as an alternative to the PLO, but to actively denounce and combat it. 

In a final claim about Hamas’ popularity that echoes the sentiments in the face of the ongoing Gaza War, the authors state that “Palestinian history has proven that those who are subjected to pressure from the Israelis gain support from the Palestinian people.” While Israel continues its assault on Hamas despite their rising popularity, the assertion appears to ring true to this day. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Michael Jubran and Laura Drake’s Middle East Policy article, “The Islamic Fundamentalist Movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” 

  • Islamists in the late 1970s took advantage of the nationalist-inclined PLO’s contradictions to gain traction. 
    • They proposed Islam as an ideological, social, political, and military alternative. 
    • Islamists in Palestine focused on resocializing society along Islamic lines, rather than focusing on liberation. 
  • In 1986-87, a new Islamic current, separate from its previous support for Muslim Brotherhood, arose and sparked the first intifada with its focus on jihad, or armed struggle. 
    • The Muslim Brotherhood was forced to pivot to support liberalization before Islamization. 
    • The May 1985 prisoner exchange between Israel and the PFLP-GC appeared to be the turning point from ideological to armed struggle. 
    • According to the new jihad, the struggle for the elimination of Israel was a duty of all believers. 
  • Israel viewed the rise of fundamentalism as an opportunity to undermine the PLO. 
    • They allowed and encouraged fundamentalists to enter political power. 
    • By 1986, however, it was becoming clear that the new power was the fundamentalist movement; as it reduced the PLO, it also took Gaza by storm. 
  • Fundamentalism in Palestine was shifting from a drive for an Islamic nation towards a focus on Palestinian nationalism and independence. 
  • When the Unified National Leadership (UNL) arose in 1988, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin would found his own fundamentalism underground movement, Hamas. 
    • Hamas was made up of three wings, headed by Islamic Congress activists: military, political, and propaganda authorized by Yassin. 
    • Despite their cooperation, Hamas quickly became so large that it appeared to push the Muslim Brotherhood underground. 
    • However, collaboration quickly rebuilt the group, enforcing Hamas through improved organization and activity. 
  • Hamas, with the help of the Brotherhood, became involved in all aspects of daily life. 
  • In the beginning, Hamas offered itself as an alternative to the PLO, but over time would begin more open confrontation against the organization. 
    • Israel and Jordan supported Hamas to undermine the PLO, who was also facing internal friction as fear of Hamas rose. 
  • In 1988-89, Israeli strikes and expulsion of key leaders dealt a severe blow to the organization, but Hamas would return later that year and continue its rise in popularity. 
  • The refusal to include Hamas in negotiations boosted its legitimacy as the PLO appeared overly willing to compromise, which limited support across Palestine. 

You can read “The Islamic Fundamentalist Movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” by Michel Jubran and Laura Drake in the special Gaza War issue of Middle East Policy. 



(Banner image: Chris McGrath / Getty Images file)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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