What Is Hamas?

The Islamic Resistance Movement, commonly known as Hamas (the acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, its name in Arabic), is the largest and most influential militant Palestinian movement. In the January 2006 elections in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council and thus took control of the Palestinian government, which had previously been held by Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat, since the founding of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994.

Hamas was founded in 1987, during the first Palestinian intifada against Israel, by Sheik Ahmed Yassin as the Palestinian arm of the Egyptian group the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas delivered social services to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and thus gained a large and very loyal following among the Palestinian people, the majority of whom lived in squalid camps under dismal conditions. Even after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian governance was plagued by mismanagement and corruption, and Hamas continued to deliver essential services to many Palestinians.

Hamas also has a military wing which has focused on attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings and rocket and mortar fire from the occupied territories into Israel.

On June 25, Hamas militants in Gaza entered Israel through an underground tunnel, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit. This attack precipitated the Israeli assault on Gaza that began two days later.

What is the role of Islam in Hamas?

Hamas is dedicated to bringing the rule of Islam to Palestine. “The Movement’s program is Islam," the group’s charter declares. It also states that “Israel will exist, and will continue to exist, until Islam abolishes it, as it abolished that which was before it," and calls for the replacement of secular governance of Palestinians with the “banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” In this view, Hamas is restoring the Dar al-Islam, the rule of Islam, in territory they regard as having been wrested from Muslim control by Western invaders.

After taking control of the Palestinian government, Hamas leaders placed verses of the Qur’an on the walls of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s chambers.

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah, or the “party of God,” based in Lebanon, is an umbrella organization of radical Shiite groups. It was founded by Muslim clerics in 1982 after Israel invaded southern Lebanon. Its spiritual leader is Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, and its senior political leader is Hassan Nazrallah, who has held the title of secretary general since 1992. Its military arm is known as Islamic Resistance.

Hezbollah gained popular support by providing social services such as hospitals and schools for Lebanese Shiites. Like Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah was able to step into the power breach created by Lebanon’s weak government. Also like Hamas, Hezbollah has pursued a political and religious agenda that centers on the destruction of Israel and opposition to the United States and has been carried out through terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. Hezbollah is credited with the kidnapping of Western hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. And the group repeatedly has used suicide bombings as well as missiles and other weaponry against Israel. In 1983, Islamist militants who later became part of Hezbollah attacked the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines.

U.S. and Israeli officials say that Hezbollah gets financial, political, and material support in the form of weapons and training, from Islamist Iran and secular Syria. Syria admits supporting Hezbollah, but denies arming the group.

What are Hezbollah’s beliefs and goals?

Hezbollah’s original rallying cry was to drive the Israeli military out of southern Lebanon. Thus, it was as much defined by what it opposes—Zionism and Israel—as by what it believes. Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, but Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel have continued.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah’s official rhetoric calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamist Palestinian government.

In Lebanon, the organization’s religious goals are less clear. Initially, the group sought to replace Lebanon’s secular government with an Iranian-style Islamic government. But Hezbollah spokesmen now deny this is an objective.

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