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ConflictsMiddle East

What to know about Hamas

October 8, 2023

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas launched its biggest attack on Israel in years with a surprise offensive on October 7, 2023. But what exactly is Hamas and what are the group's aims?

Hamas supporters at a rally in Gaza in April 2022
Hamas supporters at a rally in Gaza in April 2022Image: Mohammed Talatene/dpa/picture alliance

Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist militant group with both a political and an armed wing. It does not recognize the state of Israel and, according to its own statements, wants to destroy the country. Germany, the European Union, the United States and some Arab states classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Hamas was founded in the late 1980s in opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under former Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Hamas is made up of various military factions, including the Qassam Brigades, which have carried out many attacks and suicide bombings against Israel in recent years. The organization also includes a political party and aid organizations.

Deadly second intifada

Israel and the PLO initiated the Oslo Accords peace process in 1993, when each side recognized the other. Hamas, however, did not recognize this historic agreement and continues to carry out terrorist attacks on Israeli territory.

During the second intifada, or uprising, from 2000 to 2005, Palestinian militant groups — including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Fatah Movement's Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — carried out numerous attacks against Israeli civilians.

The Israeli army moved into Palestinian cities that are under Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo Accords, including Ramallah. According to UN figures, 4,228 Palestinians, 1,024 Israelis and 63 foreign nationals were killed in the fighting between September 2000 and July 2007.

Hamas supporters in Jabalia express solidarity with Palestinians after a clash with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in April 2022
Hamas supporters in Jabalia expressed solidarity with Palestinians after a clash with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in April 2022Image: Mohammed Talatene/dpa/picture alliance

2007: Hamas takes power in Gaza

The militant Hamas emerged as the winner of the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election. In 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza after heavy fighting against the Fatah movement, a nationalist and social democratic party that is among those that make up the PLO.

Since then, there has been an intra-Palestinian political split: Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the Fatah party, governs the partially autonomous territories in the occupied West Bank.

Israel subsequently declared Gaza a "hostile territory" and tightened its extensive and ongoing closure, implemented in part by Egypt, which shares the southwest border. Israel and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, control the land, sea and air access to the Palestinian enclave.

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Much of the population lives in dire poverty and relies on humanitarian aid. Hamas has continued its attacks on Israel from Gaza, declaring them to be "self-defense." There have been four armed conflicts with the Israeli army so far: from 2008-09, and in 2012, 2014 and 2021.

2008: First Gaza war

Israel's blockade policy, which was met with repeated rocket fire by Palestinian militant groups on Israeli civilians and localities near the Gaza Strip, led to tensions that started the first Gaza war on December 27, 2008. Israel's Operation Cast Lead military offensive ended on January 18, 2009.

Another war broke out between Hamas in Gaza and Israel on November 14, 2012, this time lasting eight days.

Just a year and a half later, the third Gaza war began on July 8, 2014, after continued rocket fire from Gaza at Israel. It ended with a temporary cease-fire on August 26.

Then on May 10, 2021, war broke out again between Israel and Gaza after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem. The conflict came after weeks of unrest, mainly in east Jerusalem, over the forced eviction of Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and violence at the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

That war ended on May 21, 2021 with a cease-fire, after more than 260 people were killed in Gaza and at least 10 people in Israel, according to UN figures.

Now the violence has flared up again, with the unprecedented large-scale attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel is "at war", and has vowed severe retaliation.

DW with news agencies. This article was originally written in German.