Hamas is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has killed hundreds of Israeli citizens, as well as Americans, in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks since the early 1990s. Hamas has governed the Gaza Strip since it violently expelled the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Though funding has slowed in recent years, Iran has provided Hamas with financing, weapons, and military training in order for the group to carry out its deadly campaigns and administer Gaza.
- Type of Organization: Political, religious, social service provider, terrorist, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations: Islamist, jihadist, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group, pan-Islamist, Qutbist, Sunni
- Place of Origin: Gaza Strip
- Year of Origin: 1987
- Founder(s): Ahmed Yassin
- Places of Operation: Gaza Strip, West Bank, Israel, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran
Ideology and Tactics
Hamas is a Palestinian armed group, terrorist organization, and political party. It has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, when it violently expelled its rival Fatah and the Palestinian Authority from the coastal enclave. Per its 1988 Charter, Hamas considers itself the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and rejects Israel’s right to exist in any part of historical Palestine, seeking to violently replace the Jewish state with a Palestinian state comprising all territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2017, Hamas issued a Political Document in which it made no mention of its Brotherhood links but maintained its rejection of Israel.
In the 1990s, Hamas began conducting suicide attacks and other armed operations against Israeli soldiers and civilians, both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Hamas’ attacks have also led to the deaths of dual-nationals and foreigners—including Americans—residing in Israel. In addition to violence, the group controls a social-services apparatus, which it uses to bolster its popular support.
Despite temporary tensions that arose over the Syrian Civil War, Hamas enjoys a close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its offshoots, including its Lebanon-based extension Hezbollah. Iran provides the Palestinian group with funds, weapons, and military training.
The United States Department of State designated Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on October 8, 1997.
Hamas’s leadership is split between its political bureau and its local government in Gaza. The political bureau constitutes the party’s internal leadership, whereas the Gaza government consists of Hamas officials conducting day-to-day governance in that territory, which Hamas has ruled since 2007. The political bureau is the organization’s principal authority and was previously based in Syria until 2012, when Hamas leaders fled after endorsing the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hamas also fields a military wing, known as the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, founded in 1992, which fields an estimated 20,000 fighters, with another 20,000 in Gaza’s Hamas-run police and security forces.
Hamas: Rulers of Gaza
Hamas entered Palestinian politics in January 2006, winning a majority in that month’s Palestinian Authority Legislative elections. The international community largely refused to deal with Hamas unless it renounced violence, recognized Israel, and abided by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Despite its role as Gaza’s government, Hamas continued to launch rockets and other terror attacks at Israeli targets. Hamas rocket fire led to three wars with Israel in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. Hamas also participated in the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In June 2007, Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and took control of the coastal enclave. Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, who had until then served as the Palestinian Authority prime minister, became the prime minister of Hamas’s Gaza government. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation agreement that led to Haniyeh stepping down and the appointment of a new PA prime minister. The reconciliation agreement notwithstanding, the PA has yet to reassert its authority over Gaza, where Hamas remains in control.
Iranian Support of Hamas
Hamas has served as Iran’s most important Palestinian partner for over two decades. Hamas’ military ties with Tehran have involved intelligence sharing, provision of arms, organizing, and training—largely through Hezbollah. Iran has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military and financial aid to Hamas since the 1990s.
Former Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal began coordinating his group’s ties with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the 1990s. Iran provided generous funding for Hamas’ attacks against Israeli targets, aimed at derailing the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A 2002 U.S. court case described 1995–1996 as “a peak period for Iranian economic support of Hamas,” because the group was delivering on Iran’s desire to torpedo peace talks by carrying out successful attacks, including a February 1996 twin suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed two American citizens.
Yet, despite the financing of discrete projects and strident overtures from Hezbollah and Tehran, Hamas otherwise kept its distance from Iran at the insistence of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s co-founder and spiritual leader. After Yassin’s assassination in 2004, though, Hamas began accepting more aid from Iran and Hezbollah, including funds and logistical support.
As the Second Intifada waned in 2005, Iran used its Lebanon-based extension Hezbollah to strengthen Hamas’ military posture vis-à-vis Israel. According to pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar, the group’s military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, visited Gaza after Israel’s 2005 disengagement, meeting with ‘resistance’ leaders, inspecting rocket production facilities and launchpads, and establishing contact with Hamas’ tunnel operatives. After Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel, Mughniyeh, with Iran’s approval, returned to Gaza and spent months there training Palestinian factions in rocket warfare. This expertise would serve Hamas well in future conflicts against Israel.
When Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Authority’s legislative elections in 2006, Iran provided Hamas an estimated $23 million a month in financial and military aid.
Relations between Hamas and Iran cooled for several years in the early 2010s after the onset of the Syrian civil war. In 2012, Iran reduced its aid to Hamas by approximately $10 million a month after the Palestinian group sided against Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. However, the 2013 overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi left Hamas without an ally, forcing it to restore its relationship with Iran, which, in any case, the group’s representatives claimed “had never been conclusively severed.” The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, particularly pressed for the full restoration of ties.
Hamas’ reconciliation with Iran experienced intermittent setbacks. Iran armed and supported the Palestinian group during the latter’s 2014 conflict with Israel, including by providing Hamas with the means and knowledge to produce their own rockets. However, as reconciliation attempts sputtered, relations soured again in 2015. Senior Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk claimed at the time that Iran had halted all military and political aid to the group, and that Tehran had not given them any money since 2009. However, other Hamas officials have contradicted Marzouk. Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas leader and political adviser to former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, claimed in 2016 that Iran had slowed, but never stopped, aid to the Qassam Brigades, and Hamas military leaders reportedly continued to receive more than $45 million annually from the IRGC.
Relations have steadily improved since 2017, when Hamas elected Yahya Sinwar as its new leader in Gaza and Saleh al-Arouri as the deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau. Al-Arouri—described by pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen as the “sponsor of reconciliation with Iran and Hezbollah”—began reconciliation efforts even prior to his election. He visited Iran and met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The discussions reportedly centered on “reconciliation [between Hamas and Iran] and the developments of the struggle against [Israel].” After his election, al-Arouri visited Iran again with a Hamas delegation and met with senior regime officials.
Hamas now appears to have adopted a neutral stance on Sunni-Shiite regional conflicts—in contrast with its approach after the beginning of the Syrian civil war—and focuses on the common ground in combating Israel. During his visit to Iran, al-Arouri—noting the group’s good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran—declared Hamas’ neutrality on all the conflicts dividing the Sunni and Shiite world, including Syria. Al-Arouri added, “Palestinian factions which have involved themselves in these conflicts in the past have harmed the Palestinian cause.” He stressed, however, that Hamas’ “strategic relationship” with Iran and Hezbollah was based on a shared commitment to resistance.
But some Hamas officials in the Palestinian diaspora have even begun expressing friendly sentiments toward the Syrian regime, indicating a further tilt towards Iran’s regional policies. In December 2018, Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Ali Baraka, described any attack on Syria as an attack on Palestine, while Maher Salah—the head of Hamas’ Diaspora Office—expressed the movement’s desire to cooperate with Syria, particularly by rebuilding Palestinian refugee camps destroyed during the Syrian civil war. Salah also welcomed the U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from the country as a victory.