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The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas): An Overview of Its Experience & History 1987–2005

Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh.


This short study seeks to review Hamas’s track record between 1987 and 2005, the period that preceded its victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The study focuses on political developments and Hamas’s resistance-related activities. The study also explains how the Islamic Resistance Movement positioned itself to be a major actor in the Palestinian arena and cannot be ignored in any political equation.

First: Background and Inception

The name of the Islamic Resistance Movement came to the limelight with the start of the first Intifadah in December 1987. From the outset, Hamas defined itself as “a wing of the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement in Palestine.” Hamas is one of the forms of resistance that the Palestinian MB movement adopted as part of its long-standing history in Palestine.

Thus, Hamas did not emerge out from a vacuum. It represents a continuation of the work of the MB movement that began in the form of popular advocacy through a network of chapters and offices beginning in 1945. Before the war of 1948, the MB movement had 25 branches in Palestine.

The MB movement in Palestine, since its inception, has been active in the areas of preaching, education, and Islamic advocacy, while raising awareness regarding the Zionist threat, the plans of outside powers for Palestine, and mobilizing resistance. The resolutions issued by their general assembly sessions (e.g., Jaffa, October 1946 and Jaffa, October 1947) were indicative of the groups strength, familiarity with political developments and the implications of developments for jihad/resistance. 

The MB movement in Palestine took part in the resistance during the war of 1947/1948. However, as they came from a recently-established organization that was not yet sufficiently strong and stable meant that their participation was limited and reflected their modest capabilities. Nevertheless, the Palestinian MB movement established paramilitary units that operated in the areas of its presence in northern and central Palestine, under the command of local Arab leaders there—affiliated to Jaysh al-Inqath (Army of Salvation) or al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (the Holy Jihad Army). These units successfully raided Zionist settlements, despite their extremely poor training and equipment.  In the southern areas like Gaza and Beersheba, many of the Palestinian MB movement members joined the Free Egyptian MB forces led by Kamel al-Sharif.

One of the most active chapters of the MB movement in resistance was the one based in Jaffa.  A national committee was formed in Jaffa when the war broke out and a representative from the MB movement joined its leadership. He was Zafer Ragheb al-Dajani, the head of the MB movement chapter in the city, and he was tasked with managing the economic division of the committee, as he was also the chairman of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.  Yusuf ‘Umairah, a member of the MB movement in Jaffa and later Fatah co-founder and leader, says that during the war the MB movement was in charge of defending areas like al-Bassah, Tal al-Rish, al-‘Ajmi, and al-Nuzha in Jaffa, in addition to maintaining order within the city.
In the Jerusalem region, the Palestinian MB participated in the fighting alongside their comrades from Arab countries and the al-Jihad al-Muqaddas forces. Interestingly, when the National Committee was formed in Jerusalem on 26/1/1948, to manage the city and protect it during the 1948 war, it consisted of 14 members, including five MB in Jerusalem: Sharif Sabbouh, As‘ad al-Imam, Taher Barakat, Jamil Wehbeh, and ‘Eid Abdine.  This is a strong indication of the influence the MB movement and its members had, as well as the respect they commanded in Jerusalem, especially if we take into account the large number of movements, parties, and associations, and the confessional diversity in Jerusalem.

After the disastrous war of 1948, the MB movement became one of the most popular groups among the Palestinians, between 1949 and 1954, both in the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS), thanks to their acclaimed role in the war of 1948, and their Islamic-national programs. The Brothers enjoyed relative freedom in Egypt until 1954, and favorable conditions in Jordan. Other movements were not able to rival the Islamists, until Nasser dealt a harsh blow to the MB movement, and began a crackdown on them, utilizing his powerful media apparatus to distort their image.

As a result, the MB and the Islamists in general were now on the defensive, biding their time until better circumstances emerged. One of the models of the power of the Islamists was the Palestinian Students League in Egypt, the elections to which Islamists or the candidates they backed won every year until 1957. This included Yasir ‘Arafat, who was close to the MB movement.

In GS, the MB movement established a secret military organization,  which carried out a number of operations in collaboration with Bedouins in the Negev. They benefited from the presence of the MB-affiliated officer in the Egyptian army ‘Abdul Mun‘im ‘Abdul Ra’uf in GS following the success of the Egyptian revolution, as ‘Abdul Ra’uf facilitated military training for them. The “Bus” attack of 17/3/1954 was one of the most famous incidents, with evidence existing that the Bedouins had carried it out in coordination with the MB, killing 11 Israelis near Beersheba, close to the Ma‘ale Akrabim settlement.

In that period, restrictions on, and persecution of, the Islamic movement, especially in Egypt and GS, raised questions among the enthusiastic young members of the Palestinian MB movement, about the possible modes of action for the liberation of Palestine. The general trend in their ranks was to seek to be prudent, and focus on educational and faith-related aspects, but another trend was to seek organized militant action, which does not take open Islamic forms, but adopts national frameworks that can appeal to a wider range of young people, protecting it from hostility and crackdowns on the part of the regimes. The experience of the Algerian revolution in that period was one of the important motivations for this mode of action. These were the first seeds of the Fatah movement (the Liberation of Palestine Movement, and later the Palestinian National Liberation movement) in 1957 in Kuwait, led by Yasir ‘Arafat, which originated from the MB movement and, more specifically, the inhabitants of the GS.

Khalil al-Wazir (aka Abu Jihad), who was a member of the MB, and who became the number two man in Fatah for 30 years, had suggested the move to the MB leadership in GS, but to no avail. However, this did not stop a considerable number of prominent and respected members of the MB from joining Fatah upon its foundation, such as Sa‘id al-Muzayyan, Ghalib al-Wazir, Salim al-Za‘nun, Salah Khalaf, As‘ad al-Saftawi, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, Kamal ‘Adwan, Rafiq al-Natshah, ‘Abdul Fatah Hammoud, and Yusuf ‘Umairah. They all assumed senior leadership positions in the movement. In addition, Yasir ‘Arafat himself was close to the MB movement. However, Fatah, which focused its recruitment efforts on MB members until 1962, opened up to various movements and segments of the population, especially after the leadership of the MB in GS compelled members to choose between membership of Fatah or the MB movement.  Fatah began to take on a nationalist-secular form that went on to shape its identity to this day.

The MB movement would be exaggerating if it claimed Fatah as an offshoot of their movement, but Fatah must also not deny its roots and early beginnings. If the MB movement is the incubator that inspired the idea and its early beginnings, Fatah was not created by its decision or according to its plan, in addition, Fatah’s project did not carry the MB ideology nor its guidelines (that guaranteed it would serve the MB movements goals).

When Jordan annexed the WB after the 1948 war, the MB movement there united with the movement in Jordan. For their part, those in GS had their own administrative office, led by Sheikh ‘Umar Sawwan until 1954. After that, they continued their work in secret in light of the Gamal ‘Abdul Nasser regime’s crackdown and persecution of the MB. However, the Brothers soon regrouped and formed the Palestinian Organization, to which the Palestinian MB in the Arab Gulf countries was affiliated, electing Hani Bsiso as their Comptroller General in the summer of 1962. 

After the disastrous war of 1967 and the Israeli capture of the rest of Palestine as well as the Sinai and the Golan Heights, the Islamic movement began to regain its vitality among Palestinians. There was a growing Islamic revival, after the masses saw the failure of nationalist, secularist, and leftist ideologies in resolving the Palestinian question.

The participation of the MB in Palestinian resistance, 1968–1970, through what was known as the “Sheikhs’ Camps” in Jordan in collaboration with Fatah, was one of the early indications of this revival. Fatah provided cover to these camps, and committed to providing supplies, arms, and ammunition, in addition to the expenses of the volunteers. The commando operations took place in coordination with Fatah, while the MB retained their full freedom in managing their training and recruitment, and their internal affairs.  Around 300 men were trained and posted to seven commando bases.

Despite their limited resources and participation, the MB gave exceptional examples in strong operations like the Green Belt Operation on 31/8/1969 and Deir Yasin on 14/9/1969, where 13 of them were killed.  It should be noted that while the MB in Jordan and MB chapters in the Arab countries endorsed the idea of the “Sheikhs’ Camps,” the leadership of the Palestinian chapter did not, believing that the time had not yet come for military action. Nevertheless, it backed it financially, and did not prevent its members from participating of their own personal initiative.

In general, the MB, who began to regain their popularity (with the Islamic awakening) in the second half of the 1970s, had armed resistance in mind, but they decided to wait until they had completed their preparations and created a military formation that was impossible to uproot. Hamas thus emerged in a mature form as a natural result of long-term efforts, and a calculated shift for an organization that is deeply rooted in Palestinian society.

The MB (and then Hamas) benefited in its rapid ascent from the long-standing history of the Palestinian MB movement. Indeed, it is the oldest Palestinian activist movement that has retained its presence in the arena. The MB also benefited from the impressive global intellectual, religious, and educational legacy of the MB movement produced by the Hassan al-Banna School and its thinkers throughout the world since the 1930s, and from the support of MB chapters around the world.

The MB did not focus exclusively on the project for armed resistance, but also formed an advocacy movement for reform, an educational edifice, and a social-charitable organization. Through their activities, they penetrated the population and recruited members, making any attempt to uproot the organization nearly impossible. In addition to this, the MB movement was proud of its resistance-jihad past, part of its identity since 1948.

Just like Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and other organizations which established civilian, educational, healthcare, social, and economic institutions, the MB too established similar institutions. They built mosques in Palestine, in which they used to spread their calling, with the number of such mosques rising from 200 in 1967 to 600 in 1987. The MB movement built many charitable and social institutions, led by the Islamic Complex and the Islamic Association in GS, and a number of Zakat (alms) committees and charities in the WB. Frameworks and institutions that support the Palestinian people were established inside Palestine and abroad, in addition to several Islamic-oriented student groupings in Kuwait, Britain, Germany, and North America. The Islamic Justice List was the strongest alliance in the elections for the General Union of Palestinian Students at the University of Kuwait in the academic years 1977/1978 and 1978/1979, led in its first year by Khalid Mish‘al, who would later on become the head of Hamas’s political bureau. For this reason, Hamas did not start out from the bottom of the long list of Palestinian resistance factions, but leapt directly to become the archrival of Fatah, the backbone of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in university and trade union elections.

In 1978, the Palestinian MB movement merged with the MB in Jordan in one organization called the Bilad al-Sham organization, following which a subordinate body was formed, “Palestine Division.” In 1983, an internal conference was held stressing that working for the Palestinian issue and liberation did not conflict with the establishment of the Islamic state. This resolved the debate that had lasted for many years regarding the dialectic of the Islamic state and resistance; that is, whether the MB should wait for the establishment of the Islamic state before beginning the project for liberation or not. The resolution was that the projects of the Islamic state and resistance against the Zionist enemy were two parallel, complementary lines that should proceed without conflicting with one another. The later emergence of Hamas is the practical application of this understanding.

The first precursors of the establishment of the military wing appeared in 1980 when the leadership sent some of its cadres abroad for military training. Sheikh Ahmad Yasin established the military wing in GS, led in the beginning by ‘Abdul-Rahman Tamraz and then Salah Shehadeh. However, the military wing was exposed by a suspicious arms dealer, leading to a crackdown against it between 25/2–1/7/1984. The Israeli authorities arrested Sheikh Ahmad Yasin for belonging to an organization hostile to Israel and possession of arms, and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. Yasin was released in a prisoner swap between Palestinian resistance forces and Israel on 20/5/1985.

The military wing was rebuilt and re-launched in 1986 under the name “Palestinian Mujahidun,” beginning operations before the 1987 Intifadah, especially in gathering arms and training fighters. The MB’s security apparatus in GS (MAJD) was founded in 1981, as part of resistance activities, and was rebuilt and expanded in 1985.

In the summer of 1985, two years before the start of the Intifadah, the MB leadership decided to take advantage of any incident to launch its confrontation with the occupation. Two members of the MB were killed in clashes at Birzeit University in 1986. It seems that the leadership based abroad gave the cadres at home the authority to select the right time to operate.

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