The Origins of Hamas: Militant Legacy or Israeli Tool?


The Origins of Hamas: Militant Legacy or Israeli Tool?
  While the movement itself claims an unbroken militancy in Palestine, others credit maneuvers of Israeli Intelligence for its establishment.


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By Jean-Pierre Filiu

Since its creation in 1987, Hamas has been at the forefront of armed resistance in the occupied Palestinian territories. While the movement itself claims an unbroken militancy in Palestine dating back to 1935, others credit post-1967 maneuvers of Israeli Intelligence for its establishment. This article, in assessing these opposing narratives and offering its own interpretation, delves into the historical foundations of Hamas starting with the establishment in 1946 of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (the mother organization) and ending with its emergence as a distinct entity at the outbreak of the first intifada. Particular emphasis is given to the Brotherhood’s pre-1987 record of militancy in the Strip, and on the complicated and intertwining relationship between the Brotherhood and Fatah.

Hamas, founded in the Gaza Strip in December 1987, has been the subject of numerous studies, articles, and analyses, particularly since its victory in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006 and its takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Yet despite this, little academic attention has been paid to the historical foundations of the movement, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Gaza branch established in 1946. Meanwhile, two contradictory interpretations of the movement’s origins are in wide circulation.

The first portrays Hamas as heir to a militant lineage, rigorously independent of all Arab regimes, including Egypt, and harking back to ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian cleric killed in 1935 while fighting the British in Palestine. This “official history” of the movement, reproduced in the Hamas literature coming out of Gaza, denies any break in continuity over the last seventy years, as if the Muslim Brotherhood had always been at the vanguard and epicenter of the national struggle. This narrative evidently aims at discrediting other Palestinian factions, chief among them Fatah, identified with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

The second interpretation basically depicts Hamas as a “golem,” a creature in Jewish folklore fashioned from mud and made animate who ultimately escapes his master. While the specific analogy was coined by an Israeli advisor to the Israeli occupation authorities in Gaza, it accurately reflects the widely held belief that Hamas was created by the Israeli security services in Gaza to divide and weaken the Palestinian national movement but ended up, as in the Jewish fable, turning against its creator. This second reading draws especially on the Muslim Brotherhood’s boycott of the anti-Israeli resistance that had been endorsed by all the other factions in the Strip following the June 1967 occupation. For those subscribing to this “counter-history,” there is no authentic nationalism outside of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 and taken over by Fatah in 1969, with Yasir Arafat at its head.

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JEAN-PIERRE FILIU is professor of Middle East studies at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA, Sciences Po). His most recent books include Histoire de Gaza (Paris: Fayard, 2012), The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (New York: Oxford University Pres, 2011), and Apocalypse in Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).


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