Hamas has been in the spotlight since October 7, when its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, launched an attack on Israeli territory, killing about 1,400 people and taking more than 200 people captives.
Israel has pledged to finish all wings of the Palestinian resistance group, which has been governing the Gaza Strip since 2007, in the wake of the attack. It has killed more than 6,500 Palestinians in indiscriminate bombings that the United Nations chief said were “clear violations of international humanitarian laws“.
Israel has launched six major assaults on Gaza since its troops withdrew from there in 2005. In 2012, it killed Ahmad Jabari, the chief of the Qassam Brigades, in air raids.
Here’s what to know about the origins and evolution of the Brigades:
What is Hamas and when was it founded?
Hamas was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yasin and his aide Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. The association lasted until 2017 when Hamas indicated ending its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas – an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) – means zeal.
It emerged during the first Intifada against Israeli occupation during which thousands of Palestinians came out to protest peacefully against Israeli land expropriation and illegal settlements. After a harsh response to their protest, Palestinians started to use rocks, and some groups resorted to small arms.
Hamas favoured armed resistance to liberate Palestine and opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords, saying Israel used the deal to expand illegal settlements on territories occupied in 1967.
In 2006, the group decided to participate in elections in Gaza. It won, but the transfer of power was not peaceful, as Fatah – the party that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) – tried to oust them from the Gaza Strip.
Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the enclave after Hamas took power, and it still decides what and who goes in and comes out of the Strip – making it effectively an “open-air prison”.
Ismail Haniyeh, who had close ties with Hamas founder Yasin, leads the political wing of Hamas today.
According to a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in March, most Palestinians would vote for Haniyeh over current PA President Mahmoud Abbas or his Fatah party.
Hamas’s continued social welfare activities, including food distribution during Ramadan and building schools, have solidified its support.
What are the Qassam Brigades?
Hamas established its military unit in 1992 to centralise and structure the military actions its fighters had been taking against Israel in the 1980s and 1990s.
The name is inspired by a Syrian fighter, Ezzedine al-Qassam, who struggled against British occupation after he was expelled to Palestine, according to the group’s official website.
Mohammed Deif is the military commander, assisted by his deputy, Marwan Issa.
The Qassam Brigades’ actions against Israel have helped Hamas gain popularity among large segments of Palestinians, according to experts.
The PA has become unpopular as it has failed to stop illegal settlements and continues security coordination with Israel. It became further marginalised by the rise of extreme far-right Israeli politics.
How strong are the Qassam Brigades?
According to the CIA World Factbook, the Qassam Brigades have 20,000 to 25,000 members, although this number is disputed.
The Brigades have lost thousands of fighters in Israeli attacks and its resources have been depleted in Israeli air raids.
Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza provided Hamas with the opportunity to rebuild its military wing. Financial support, allegedly from Iran, is said to have enabled the armed group to develop sophisticated military capabilities. Hamas sees its arsenal as a crucial deterrent.
What are the Qassam Brigades’s military activities?
The Brigades are said to acquire their weapons through smuggling, allegedly getting some military support from Iran, and making some weapons locally, according to the CIA Factbook. Al Jazeera, however, could not independently verify the claims.
They tend to rely on rocket attacks and have added drones to their arsenal recently.
According to a 2021 report by the US Department of State, the Qassam and other Palestinian armed groups launched more than 4,400 rockets in confrontations with Israel in 2021. In 11 days of fighting, at least 260 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes while Israeli fatalities stood at 13.
Reports say the Qassam has expertise in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket launchers, antitank missiles and mortars, but they rely a great deal on strategy and stealth, with an extensive tunnel infrastructure that enables them to move around undetected.
Why did Hamas attack on October 7?
Hamas said its attack was in response to Israeli violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and rising settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It also said that it had managed to take enough captives to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, and some analysts have said the acceleration of Arab-Israeli normalisation may have been another factor.
“This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth,” said Deif, the Qassam Brigades military commander. He openly called on supporters and Muslim nations to join the armed struggle.
What are Gaza’s other armed resistance groups?
Other armed groups in Gaza have indicated that they are joining the current resistance against Israeli forces.
Chief among them are the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds Brigades. Formed in 1992, al-Quds has claimed responsibility for at least 23 rocket attacks, according to data gathered by the Critical Threats Project.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also has an active military presence in Gaza through the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades and has been joining calls for armed resistance through official Telegram messages.