Hamas: Who Stands Behind and Supports the Controversial Group

Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a Palestinian Islamist military and sociopolitical group that emerged in Gaza in the late 1980s and emerged as an alternative to the secular Fatah movement in the 1990s. After Israel withdrew military forces from Gaza in 2005, Hamas forcibly seized the territory from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in 2007. Hamas exercises de facto government authority and manages service provision in Gaza through its security forces and obtains resources from smuggling, informal “taxes,” and external assistance.

The group has received funding, weapons, and training from Iran and raises funds in Persian Gulf countries. Hamas also receives donations from Palestinians, expatriates, and charity organizations. Some Hamas leaders and personnel may live in Arab countries and Turkey, while Ismail Haniyeh, the political bureau leader, appears to be based in Doha, Qatar. Hamas and other Gaza-based militants have engaged in occasional conflict with Israel since seized Gaza by force in 2007. Major conflicts in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 saw Hamas launch rockets indiscriminately toward Israel, and Israeli military strikes largely decimated Gaza’s infrastructure.

Since 2007, Gaza has been facing economic and humanitarian crises due to restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on transit. The region suffers from chronic economic difficulties, electricity and safe drinking water shortages, and lacks broader economic recovery or reconstruction. Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades, has killed hundreds of Israelis and over two dozen U.S. citizens since 1993. Their methods of attack have evolved from small-scale kidnappings and killings of Israeli military personnel to suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. The planning, preparation, and implementation of the October 7, 2023, attacks in Israel demonstrate a further evolution in the Qassam Brigades’ capabilities, including drone munitions, personnel-capable gliders, and complex infantry operations.

Hamas’s ideology combines Palestinian nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism, with its founding charter committed to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in historic Palestine. A 2017 document clarified Hamas’s stance on its conflict with the “Zionist project” and its preference for an Islamist Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas, a Palestinian group, has consolidated control over Gaza and is pursuing popular support through armed attacks on Israel. The group is open to democratic political competition with Palestinian rivals but has goals incompatible with recent Arab-Israeli normalization diplomacy. Elections have not occurred in Gaza since 2007, and Hamas maintains strict control over political activity in areas under its control.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented Hamas’ human rights violations against Palestinian civilians and Israelis. The U.S. designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, along with Lebanese Hezbollah. The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism assesses terrorist attacks and preparations for future acts. The Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list is used by the United States to restrict a group’s financial, property, and travel interests.

The Secretary of State must prove an entity meets three criteria to designate it as an FTO: it must be a foreign organization, have the capability to engage in terrorism, and threaten U.S. nationals’ security or national defense, foreign relations, or economic interests. Designating an entity like Hamas may result in penalties such as being unlawful to provide material support, making representatives and members inadmissible, and blocking transactions involving assets.

The US government and other nations may use the FTO to curb terrorism financing, but this could stigmatize and isolate the organization. It could deter donations and economic transactions with the FTO, raise public awareness of terrorist organizations, and signal US concern about designated organizations. Hamas has supported Iran for decades, with Iranian officials meeting with the group in the early 1990s to support its goals. Hamas established an external office in Iran in 1992, receiving unclear support from the Iranian government. In 1998, spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin received a $15 million monthly pledge from Iran. Hamas leaders have conflicting accounts of their ties with Iran.

During the second Palestinian intifada of 2000-2005, Iran provided support to Hamas, including through the Shia Islamist group Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah is compared to Hamas’s relationship with Iran, which is seen as a pragmatic partner to Iran’s anti-Israel axis. Since Hamas took over de facto control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it has engaged in several rounds of conflict with Israel, with continued material and financial support from Iran. Iranian aid has been crucial to Hamas due to Israeli-Egyptian restrictions on the transit of people and goods for Gaza since 2007 and Hamas’s arsenal of rockets. Iran initially smuggled rockets into Gaza by sea and via illicit tunnels under the Egyptian border. After Egypt cracked down on those tunnels in 2013, Iran focused more on teaching Palestinian militants how to use Iranian systems and locally manufacture their own variants.

Iran-Hamas relations deteriorated after the outbreak of violence in Syria in 2011, with Iran and Hezbollah backing the government of Bashar al Asad and Hamas siding with the Sunni opposition. In 2017, the two sides began to repair ties and have since appeared closely aligned. Hamas’s top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Tehran at least three times between 2019 and the October 7 attacks. Hamas leaders have claimed that their preparation for the October 2023 attacks was a strategic decision to disrupt Arab-Israeli normalization efforts and strengthen their domestic position. The attacks may have been intended to disrupt existing and potential future normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states, including U.S.-backed efforts to promote Saudi-Israeli normalization. Hamas may have also sought to strengthen its domestic political position vis-à-vis the struggling Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Difficult living conditions in Gaza may have increased local political pressure on Hamas, and Hamas leaders may have perceived political opportunity arising from a pattern of confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Political tensions have risen in 2023 among Israelis, and Hamas and its allies may have perceived an opportunity to amplify discord by launching the attacks and successfully targeting Israeli military and civilian targets. Hamas leaders have long prioritized the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and may have launched the attacks to use hostages for prisoner releases or other Israeli concessions.

GazaHamasHamas: Who Stands Behind and Supports the Controversial GroupIslamic Resistance MovementIsraelMiddle EastPalestinianPalestinian Islamist military