Hamas and Islamic Jihad: Origins and future

The potential inclusion of these groups in future Palestinian statehood talks presents an added challenge to an already difficult task

Al Majalla explores the origins of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and prospects for their respective futures following the 7 October attacks on Israel.
Nathalie Lees
Al Majalla explores the origins of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and prospects for their respective futures following the 7 October attacks on Israel.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad: Origins and future

Gaza: There is rising speculation that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) could form part of a new government under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority to run the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Such a proposal – among the options presented by Egypt as diplomats across the globe search for a way to end the four-month war in Gaza – would be part of moves toward a two-state solution, widely seen as the main chance for lasting peace and backed by the United States.

Ways in which the Palestinians would get to form a proper state within the borders set in 1967 are seen by a range of countries as the best means of opening a path to the return of negotiations between them and the Israelis on a long-term settlement.

But after the 7 October attacks, any potential involvement of Hamas and PIJ in any such settlement is one of the most challenging parts of moves towards peace.

The state-building process that would be involved – under international and United Nations supervision – and the framework that would be set up for any new Palestinian Authority is already difficult, with or without the added challenge of including Hamas and PIJ.

They would also need to move on from their opposition to the existing PA in the occupied West Bank and their rejection of the Oslo Agreements, signed in 1993 by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Israel, which underpins the PA.

Whatever else, the need for peace is clear and a global issue of paramount importance. Israel’s war on Gaza has destroyed the northern half of Gaza and forced more than two-thirds of the population there to flee south.

As efforts to end the war continue, Al Majalla looks at the origins and development of the groups that will help define what happens next at this pivotal moment for the Palestinian people and their cause, the wider region, and the world.

This is the story of Hamas and PIJ.

The state-building processes required to move toward a lasting peace are already difficult, with or without the added challenge of including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas origins

The emergence of the Hamas movement did not start in 1987, the year it officially declared itself as a resistance movement in Palestine.

Rather, the group's origins go back to the 1940s. The first branches of the Muslim Brotherhood took root in Gaza, Jerusalem, and other Palestinian cities as the state of Israel was being set up before it arrived on Palestinian territory in 1948.

The Brotherhood was focused on state-building for the Palestinians on what was left of their territory. It set up religious, social, medical, and other institutions to help meet people's needs. It was committed to the Palestinian cause but preferred intellectual, cultural and political means over military action.

But after the 1967 war and Israel's subsequent occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian land, a divide emerged in the Palestinian cause. It has rippled through politics in the occupied territories ever since, right up to the 7 October attacks and the war in Gaza which followed.

The 1967 defeat, known as the 'Naksa' or setback, soon led to calls for a military response from elements of the Palestinian youth movement. They were to lead to the development of Hamas as a distinct group in its own right.

Its first spokesperson, Ibrahim Ghosha, in his memoirs The Red Minaret, said the 1967 defeat sent young people toward another Palestinian group – Fatah – set up by Palestinian expatriates in 1959 in the Gulf states. Fatah helped equip and train these dissidents from the Muslim Brotherhood in combat skills in Jordan between 1968 and 1970.

Nathalie Lees

From then, tension persisted between young activists and the broader Palestinian leadership, which remained focused on state-building. The young fighters started arming themselves without the knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

The role of the younger generation grew, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, especially within Islamic circles and mosques in Gaza.

In contrast, Fatah's leadership was more scattered and disconnected from the places of conflict. By the time the 1987 Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, erupted, Hamas had emerged as an Islamic resistance to confront the Israeli army — especially in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The Oslo 'betrayal'

Fatah was the leading force within the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The PLO engaged in secret talks with the Israelis in Oslo in the 1990s, while Hamas was left out.

The resulting peace agreement, known as the Oslo Accords, was seen by Hamas as a betrayal of the Palestinian people and created a rift between Fatah and the PLO.

While those two groups went on to set up the PA in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – seen as the potential nucleus for an eventual Palestinian state – Hamas did not support them.

While Fatah and the PLO went on to set up the PA in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – seen as the potential nucleus for an eventual Palestinian state – Hamas did not support them.

Hamas, in effect, became the leading opposition to the PA. It continued with its military operations and suicide attacks inside Israel, especially when it anticipated the signing of any new agreement or any development to the Oslo Accords.

It refused to participate in the first Palestinian legislative elections in 1996, considering them "religiously haram" or "religiously forbidden," as they were a product of negotiations with Israel.

Hamas' charter of 1988 recognised Israel only as an occupying force. It emphasised the need to liberate all of Palestine "from the river to the sea", in reference to all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

From 1994 onwards, more and more points of contention between Hamas and the PA emerged, so much so that the PA started arresting Hamas' leaders and members to try and stop them from bearing arms or taking military action.

Armed confrontations

Dozens of Hamas' operational units were pursued. Hatred developed from its members and supporters toward the PA and its security apparatus. There were armed clashes between the sides in the Gaza Strip in 2006.

They came after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, the leader of Fatah, the PLO and the PA. Hamas refused to take part in the presidential elections that followed.

But it did take part in the second legislative elections in 2006, with consequences that proved drastic for the movement. Hamas' list of candidates received the most votes, defeating Fatah. A defeated Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, appointed Hamas' parliamentary leader, Ismail Haniyeh, to form a government.

He did not last long.

Disagreements between Hamas' interior minister, Said Seyam, and the security apparatus led to the armed clashes. In the end, Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip, and the PA ruled the West Bank.

Young supporters of the radical Islamist movement Hamas celebrate the group's victory on the Palestinian parliamentary elections in the Jabalya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, 26 January 2006.

Hamas overhauled its charters in 2017. The original version defined the group as a religious movement and a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. The redrawn version distanced itself from the Brotherhood, not mentioning it at all.

But there was a more significant difference. The new document, drawn up long before the 7 October attacks, seemed to attempt to align the group with international law, particularly over humanitarian issues.

It was seen as a move to open doors for regional talks and talks with the West over the removal of its designation as a terrorist group.

It also changed its definition of the Palestinian state to 1967 borders, but it stood by its claim that Palestinian land runs "from the river to the sea" and repeated its rejection of the Oslo Accords and the PA. It also affirmed the necessity of liberation before a Palestinian state is established.

Following the Palestinian division, many countries intervened with initiatives and hosted dialogues for Palestinian factions – including the conflicting parties Hamas and Fatah.

It was an attempt to unite the Palestinian national movement to more effectively counter Israel, which never stopped expanding its settlements in the occupied West Bank and never lifted its crippling blockade on Gaza.

These efforts continue. But they are now ongoing in a world upended by Israel's war on Palestinians in Gaza, carried out under the pretext of eliminating Hamas and its military capabilities after the 7 October attacks.

Hamas' overhaul of its charter in 2017 changed its definition of the Palestinian state to 1967 borders but it stood by its claim that Palestinian land runs "from the river to the sea."

PIJ origins

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad emerged as the second Sunni Islamic movement after Hamas, and the groups have clear similarities.

PIJ took a military approach in its operations against Israel, also with the aim of liberating all of Palestine "from the river to the sea".

It also rejected all political settlement agreements and peace treaties with Israel, considering them betrayals of the Palestinian people and cause.

The group formally emerged in 1987 when it advocated for and participated in military operations following the outbreak of the first Intifada.

However, its roots can be traced back to political and intellectual origins in the late 1970s, particularly concerning the relationship between Islam and Palestine.

A bloc of Palestinian students at Egyptian universities with Islamic orientations sought to highlight the religious aspects of the cause, which had previously been associated more with nationalist and ideological elements, including socialism.

This move toward religion initially came under the name Al-Talai' Al-Islamiyya, or The Islamic Vanguard. Then, as now, the group sees armed resistance as the sole path to liberate Palestine.

Palestinians wearing the emblem of the Islamic Jihad group kneel to pray along a pavement during a demonstration in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron to show solidary with the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip on October 27, 2023

It refuses to give up an inch of Palestinian land, calling for the complete elimination of the Israeli presence via mobilising the Palestinian people and Arab and Muslim allies. It seeks support from friendly Islamic and liberation movements worldwide.

Growing capabilities

PIJ seeks recruits from universities, mosques, schools, unions, and charitable associations, not only in the Gaza Strip but throughout all of Palestine. It runs its military activities from clandestine cells. Its operations became more prominent after the outbreak of the first Intifada.

As the divisions between Hamas and the PA opened up, PIJ distanced itself from the armed clashes between those two groups. It threw its weight behind moves to reconcile Fatah and Hamas and pointed to the weakness the division was causing to the broader Palestinian cause.

During recent years, the capabilities of the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of PIJ, have grown. It was involved in the 7 October attacks alongside Hamas.

Both Hamas and PIJ have been in open opposition to the PLO since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the start of peace talks with Israel.

The groups have fought against such moves ever since, to the point of sabotaging the process. That led to the PA pursuing the members of both groups.

PIJ formally emerged in 1987 when it advocated for and participated in military operations following the outbreak of the first Intifada.

At times, that created an impression that the PA was acting on behalf of Israel in reigning in operations that were designed to liberate Palestine.

It was not until 2006 that Hamas took part in the post-Oslo political process, without PIJ, when it stood in elections that led to it forming a government in the Gaza Strip, although it remained opposed to the PA in the West Bank. During this time, PIJ continued to distance itself from Hamas.

Limited options

The 7 October attacks and the subsequent war in Gaza leave Hamas with limited options. The group will likely have to give up its weapons and become part of a unified Palestinian government or carry on fighting.

The latter choice would leave it facing a war of attrition with Israel until both sides agree on a ceasefire. The PIJ now faces a choice to either stand with Hamas as long as it is still fighting or surrender and disarm.

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