Hamas was founded during the First Palestinian Intifada uprising, in 1987, stemming from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The aim stated in its founding charter was to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation and to establish an Islamic state in place of Israel.
Hamas, meaning enthusiasm, is an acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’. The Islamist principles of one of its founders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, differed starkly from the secular nature of Fatah in that Hamas would not tolerate sharing land.
When the leader of Fatah and the affiliated Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, signed the Oslo Accords with the Israelis in 1993, under American auspices, Hamas rejected them because it did not recognize Israel’s right to exist in Palestine. The Second Intifada raged from 2000-2005.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) held by Fatah gained stature politically while its rival for power Hamas stepped up attacks against Israel. When Arafat died in 2004, the peace process was in a complete stall. Then Hamas changed strategy, deciding to take part in political institutions which it had earlier shunned.
Hamas won a decisive majority in Palestinian Parliamentary elections in 2006. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was obliged to form a national unity government, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas. But with a Hamas-led administration in place, the US and EU stopped financial assistance.
Pro-Hamas and pro-Fatah militias fought each other street to street, each side accusing the other of either corruption or intransigence. Hamas prevailed in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank. Israel and Egypt economically blockaded Gaza.
The territories of the West Bank, with 2.5 million Palestinians, and Gaza, with 1.5 million, have been not only geographically distanced from each other but politically divided. Hamas rocket-fire was followed by Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009.
Abbas’s drive to win UN recognition for Palestinian statehood brought a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement last year, in the interest of proceeding together with some semblance of unity, ahead of national elections, supposed to take place this year.
While Hamas remains listed as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and many western governments, Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mechaal have nevertheless been increasing their joint efforts to improve prospects for Palestinians irrespective of any ideological differences.