Who is Hamas and why are they at war with Israel? A guide

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Dubai: Violence has exploded across Israel and the Gaza Strip after Hamas, the ruling militant group in Gaza, launched an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel on October 7.

Israel has since declared war against Hamas and death tolls on both sides are soaring as the conflict rages on. Thousands of Israeli reservists have answered a call to serve, and a fierce airstrike campaign is bombarding Gaza.

What happened in Israel?

Hamas militants fired up to 5000 rockets from Gaza into Israel on Saturday, overwhelming its Iron Dome defence system and giving fighters a chance to breach security barriers and infiltrate several towns across the border, killing Israelis including families, young and old, and kidnapping others.

Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City.Credit: AP

More than 700 Israelis have since been killed. Israel in turn has killed at least 400 Palestinians after declaring war and conducting air strikes, vowing to exact revenge. A senior Hamas leader says 100 Israelis are being held hostage.

Who is Hamas?

Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist militant group dedicated to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The group operates from and controls the Gaza Strip.

It has been declared a terrorist organisation by Australia, the United States and the European Union for its long-running armed resistance against Israel, for which it receives financial and material backing from Iran.

Palestinian militants drive a captured Israeli military vehicle in Gaza City at the weekend.Credit: AP

The group formed as a spin-off of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s, taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007 after defeating its rival political party, Fatah, which dominates the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and rules in the West Bank, also a Palestinian territory.

What is the Gaza Strip?

The Gaza Strip is a narrow, 40-kilometre-long parcel of land between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, home to more than 2 million people.

It is the smallest of the Palestinian territories and is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Until 1967, Gaza was under the control of Egypt, before it was seized by Israel during the Six Day War. Israel controlled the strip and enabled the construction of Jewish settlements until 2005 when it responded to mounting international pressure and withdrew from the territory.

However, since 2007 Israel has imposed a strict land, sea and air blockade over the region, restricting the flow of goods and people.

The Hamas militant group has been the de facto authority since that time and fought multiple wars with Israel since taking control of the area, where it has established a judiciary and authoritarian institutions.

Hamas’ founding document called for the destruction of Israel, although leaders in recent years have shown a willingness to see the establishment of a two-state solution based on borders that existed before 1967, without recognising the statehood of Israel.

Does Hamas account for all Palestinian territories? What about the West Bank?

No, Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. The larger West Bank is governed by the Fatah party and overseen by President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah recognises Israel’s right to exist and is seen by most Western countries as representing the Palestinians.

Hamas and Fatah have ruled the occupied Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively since 2007.

Among the key differences between the groups is their approach to Israel: where Hamas has remained committed to using armed resistance, Fatah believes in negotiation and has ruled out using attacks or violence.

Why are Israel and Hamas at war?

While it was not immediately clear what prompted Hamas to launch its attack on Saturday, it followed weeks of long-simmering tensions along the Gaza frontier.

The violence erupted one day after Hamas, which rules Gaza, said that the “people had to draw a line to end the occupation” and added that Israel continued to commit crimes across Palestinian land, and especially on the holy site of al-Aqsa in Jerusalem’s old city.

Al-Aqsa is a highly sensitive site for both Muslims and Jews. To Muslims, the area around the mosque is the third-holiest place after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. To Jews, it is known as Temple Mount, and is venerated as a holy site in Judaism. Hamas has called its current offensive Operation al-Aqsa Deluge.

Israel declared war on Saturday after Hamas launched the assault, striking Israel with thousands of rockets while militants broke through the security barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip.

The most recent conflict comes after years of clashes, cross-border raids by Hamas and rocket fire from both sides, while Israel has maintained its blockade of the region.

The restrictions, which include a land and naval blockade mean basic supplies of food and medicine have been missing from the Gaza Strip for years. The strip has been described by Human Rights Watch as the “world’s largest open-air prison”.

Who supports Hamas?

Hamas is part of a regional alliance made up of Iran, Syria and the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. All broadly oppose US policy in the Middle East and Israel.

While its power base is in Gaza, Hamas also has supporters across the Palestinian territories, and it has leaders spread across the Middle East, including in Qatar.

Iran is Hamas’ key supporter – both financially and materially. Iran’s mission to the United Nations says Tehran was not involved in Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, but that it supported the action.

It has made no secret of its backing for Hamas, funding and arming the group and another Palestinian militant organisation, Islamic Jihad.

A captured Israeli civilian from Kibbutz Kfar Azza, wrapped in white, being taken into the Gaza Strip.Credit: AP

A spokesman for the militant group, Ghazi Hamad, on Monday told the BBC Hamas had direct backing from Iran for the assault. Hamad said the offensive was a response to attacks by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Separately, Iran has praised the attacks, insisting its emphatic and “unflinching support of Palestine”. The country’s UN missions noted, however, that the response had been “taken solely by Palestine itself”.

Also backed by Iran is Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia group, which entered the conflict on Sunday by firing artillery and rockets into territory that Israel controls. Hezbollah was founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to export its Islamic Revolution.

Hezbollah supporters on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Israeli border, near the Israeli town of Metula.Credit: AP

The Shiite group began as a shadowy faction established during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Today, it is a heavily armed force commanding genuine influence over the Lebanese state. Governments, including the US, deem it a terrorist organisation.

Who supports Israel?

More than 80 countries have formally declared their support for Israel in the emerging conflict, with many insisting the nation’s right to defend itself, including Australia.

Chief among them is the US, which will send additional munitions to Israel and move Navy warships closer to the country in a show of support. President Joe Biden has reiterated the US’s unwavering support for Israel.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Hamas attack on Israel at the weekend. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is seen in the background.Credit: Bloomberg

Solidarity with Israel has also been declared by other Western nations, including Germany, France, and the UK.

Across the Arab world, leaders have called for restraint, as others – like Qatar – say Israel is responsible for the situation. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry likewise called for an “immediate cessation of violence”, adding that it had “repeatedly warned of the dangers of an explosive situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights”.

What does the conflict mean for relations in the region?

Experts fear the situation will only further set back relations between Israel and Arab nations, including delicate negotiations which have been underway between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

An anti-Israel banner is carried on a truck iniin an annual military parade in September in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran.Credit: AP

Since last year, the US president has led talks between the two nations in an attempt to normalise relations and affirm recognition from Saudi Arabia of Israel’s statehood. Political commentators suggest a resolution to those negotiations is now under threat.

Securing an agreement would have marked a significant diplomatic win for Biden before his campaign for the 2024 US election. A separate agreement brokered by the US in 2020, the so-called Abraham Accords (mediated by the then-president Donald Trump), led to the normalisation of ties between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The US had hoped that Saudi Arabia would follow in those footsteps, however the scale of the co-ordinated Hamas attack casts a long shadow, while dealing a severe blow to Saudi Arabian and Israeli relations.

With Reuters, AP

Most Viewed in World

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article