Hamas: a brief history, and relations with Israel
Note: the second half of this w/u is based on a UPI article quoting several US officials off the record. Hence the level of evidence for the assertions seems to be somewhat low. However, given the interest of the subject, I believe it is worth noding.
Hamas is a dangerous but popular terrorist, militant, social, philanthropic and religious organisation, active in Gaza and the West Bank and notorious for assassinations, car bombs, suicide bombings and other sorts of violence. Its aim is to "liberate" all of Palestine and establish a transnational, radical Islamic state, much like Khomeini's Iran, in place of Israel. (In contrast, the PLO which nominally controls the PA is secular and leftist and promotes Palestinian nationalism.)
Hamas evolved from an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Islamic movements in Israel and Palestine were largely unimportant until after the 1967 Six Days War in which Israel scored a stunning victory over neighbouring Arab states, notably Egypt and Jordan.
The cornerstone of the Islamic movement's success was an impressive social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure, called Da'wah, that worked to ease the hardship of large numbers of Palestinian refugees, confined to camps, and many who were living on the edge. Hamas became an important social and political influence, first in the Gaza Strip, then on the West Bank.
According to Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT, an Israeli-based organization) papers, Hamas was legally registered in Israel in 1978 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement's spiritual leader, as an Islamic Association by the name Al-Mujamma al Islami.
After the Islamic revolution in Iran and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon began armed resistance to Israel, such Islamic movements became much more active. The PLO moved its base of operations to Beirut in the '80s, leaving the Islamic organization to grow in influence in the Occupied Territories as the main focus of resistance.
When the intifada began, Hamas immediately grew in numbers and violence, relying on terror to resist the Israeli occupation. According to U.S. government officials, up until then the doctrine of armed struggle had not been practiced and Islamic groups had not been subjected to suppression the way groups like Fatah had been.
UPDATE: In the early morning of Monday March 22, 2004, Ahmed Yassin was killed, along with 7 others, in an Israeli missile attack outside a mosque in Gaza: a so-called targeted killing, although one would think that a bullet between the eyes would correspond more precisely to that phrase. It is not yet clear who is to succeed him as overall leader of the movement: despite the unequivocal nature of its goals, there are apparently policy differences between those high up in its command, presumably concerning the optimal ratio of violence to other forms of activity. It seems unlikely that Hamas will go away now that its head has been cut off: it may even mutate into a quite different creature.
Relations with Israel
According to U.S. administration officials, funds for the movement came from the oil-producing states and directly and indirectly from Israel. Beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.
"... (T)he Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO," said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies. Israel's support for Hamas "was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative," said a former senior CIA official. Israeli leaders were taken by surprise by the growth of Hamas following the Iranian revolution. However, Israel continued funding, certainly up to the time of the first intifada; not only as a counterweight to the PLO, but for another purpose: "To help identify and channel towards Israeli agents Hamas members who were dangerous terrorists."
In addition, by infiltrating Hamas and attending strategy meetings, Israeli informers could identify Hamas members who were dangerous hard-liners. However, as Hamas had a very comprehensive counterintelligence system, many collaborators with Israel were weeded out and shot. Violent acts of terrorism became the central tenet, and Hamas, unlike the PLO, was unwilling to compromise in any way with Israel, refusing to acquiesce in its very existence. Hence the current situation of sporadic open war between Hamas and the IDF.
A U.S. administration official is quoted: "The thinking on the part of some of the right-wing Israeli establishment was that Hamas and the others, if they gained control, would refuse to have any part of the peace process and would torpedo any agreements put in place. Israel would still be the only democracy in the region for the United States to deal with."
According to former State Department counter-terrorism official Larry Johnson, "the Israelis are their own worst enemies when it comes to fighting terrorism.
"The Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his hair and then tries to put it out by hitting it with a hammer. They do more to incite and sustain terrorism than curb it," he said.
Cordesman said that a similar attempt by Egyptian intelligence to fund Egypt's fundamentalists had also come to grief because of "misreading of the complexities."'
"Analysis: Hamas history tied to Israel"
by Richard Sale. See also
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/978626.stm , and
http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/828.cfm for the Muslim Brotherhood.