Hamas is a US-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. On March 6, 2019, Israel designated the Gaza-based, Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa TV station as a terrorist entity. On August 20, 2019, Paraguay said it had officially recognized the military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.
From mid-March into April 2022, a spate of terror attacks were committed in Israel. Arab-Israelis inspired by ISIS claimed attacks in Beersheba and Hadera. Hamas praised the acts of terrorism, while Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas condemned them. “We commend the valor and courage of the perpetrators of this heroic operation, which comes as retaliation for the blood of the martyrs, and in response to the aggression and terror of the occupation,” Hamas said in a statement referring to the Hadera attack. This statement of praise is noteworthy because the attack was committed by ISIS-affiliated militants, and Iran—Hamas’s patron—has often clashed with ISIS.
On March 7, 2022, Hamas took credit for a stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City. Even though Hamas may not want a conflict with Israel at this time, the group vowed to escalate hostilities on account of the death of a Palestinian in an Israeli anti-terror operation in the West Bank. This threat occurred against the backdrop of heightened fears of violence due to the convergence of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious holidays in the month of April. A similar pattern continued in April 2022—particularly in the April 7, 2022 attack in Tel Aviv—with Hamas praising attacks despite the terrorists having no known affiliation to the organization.
May 2021 Conflict with Israel
In early May 2021, Israel’s Supreme Court was set to decide on a case regarding the eviction of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Hamas’s military leader, Mohammed Deif, said that if the Palestinians in Sheik Jarrah were evicted, Hamas “will not stand by helplessly and the enemy will pay a heavy price.”
This Supreme Court case could have been part of the catalyst for the 2021 crisis, because, on the same day that the ruling was to be heard, Hamas began indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel. In the end, over 3,300 rockets were launched by Hamas into Israel, killing ten people. Human Rights Watch referred to the attacks, which hit civilian population centers, as “war crimes.”
Israel’s missile defense system, known as the “Iron Dome,” intercepted nearly ninety percent of the rockets, but it was at times overwhelmed by the barrage, the military said. The eleven-day conflict between Israel and Hamas (and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) ended in an Egypt-brokered ceasefire on May 21, 2021.
Ahead of the conflict, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh wrote to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to request Iranian support against Israel. Evidently, Iran obliged because, on May 21, Haniyeh praised Iran for supporting the war effort, saying that Tehran “did not hold back with money, weapons, and technical support.” Separately, Iran’s Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani sent a letter during the fighting to Mohammed Deif praising him as a “living martyr.”
The conflict boosted Hamas’s image among people in the Middle East, as the group was able to propagandize itself as a victim of Israeli aggression (even though it fired rockets first) and a victor in the war (even though Israeli airstrikes killed many Hamas terrorists and destroyed miles of underground tunnels). Hamas’s propaganda influenced news outlets like Shehab News, with which Hamas is affiliated. The mainstream Qatari news agency, Al Jazeera, may have also adopted their narrative, for Hamas praised their coverage of the war. Over the course of the conflict, Hamas’s Qassam Brigades Telegram channel increased by 261,000 followers.
After the airstrikes began, pro-Palestinian sentiment flooded social media and culminated in street protests throughout the Arab world, including in countries that agreed to normalize relations with Israel. The Muslim-majority countries that signed the Abraham Accords came under pressure to “show solidarity with the Palestinians after being accused of turning their backs on them when they originally agreed to normalize relations with Israel,” said one analyst at the Middle East Institute. Some cities across the US and Europe also witnessed protests.
Referencing its support and praise of Hamas’s rocket attack, the Iranian regime signaled to conservative groups in Iran that it had taken action against Israel. It appealed to these groups without provoking Israel or risking a derailment of the Iran nuclear negotiations. In recent years, pressure has grown on Iran to take action given Israel’s sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities and strikes on IRGC personnel in Syria.
Hostilities broke out again in June 2021, as Hamas lofted incendiary balloons into Israel in response to a march through Palestinian parts of Jerusalem organized by far-right groups. The Israeli military confirmed that it carried out airstrikes in retaliation.
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.
According to political scientists Ilana Kass and Bard O’Neil, “The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade is a separate armed military wing, which has its own leaders who do not take their orders [from Hamas] and do not tell [Hamas] of their plans in advance.” That might suggest that Ismail Haniyeh, who was elected to another term as leader of the group’s political bureau in 2021, shares command authority over the military wing with Mohammed Deif. Iran has less control over Hamas than other Palestinian militant groups, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
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, 2014, and 2021. 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 US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A 2002 US 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 newspaper 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 television channel 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 US decision to withdraw its troops from the country as a victory.
In 2019, media reports circulated that Hamas had asked Iran to act as a mediator between itself and the Assad regime. Iran also allegedly expressed a willingness to increase its monthly payments to Hamas in exchange for intelligence on Israeli missile capabilities. According to Israel’s Channel 12, during a meeting between Iran’s supreme leader and Hamas officials, Tehran offered to provide $30 million per month. This was a substantial increase as a previous Ynet report listed the total as $70 million per year, with other outlets saying it was as high as $100 million per year. If accurate, it demonstrated the premium Tehran would pay for intelligence on Israeli military capabilities.
The relations continued to warm in 2020, when Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh, attended the funeral of former IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh’s trip caught some observers by surprise because, in December of the previous year, Egypt had allowed him to travel for the first time since he ascended to Hamas’ leadership on the condition that he would not visit Iran. At the funeral, Haniyeh spoke of Soleimani as being a “martyr of Jerusalem.”
There is also evidence he met on the sidelines with the new head of the IRGC Quds Force Esmail Ghaani, as Haniyeh appeared in photographs alongside Ghaani and Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri. This was likely a crucial meeting to connect Soleimani’s successor with the existing leadership of Iran’s Axis of Resistance. Indeed, Hamas officials have made a point of continuing to praise Iran’s steady support for the organization even after Soleimani’s demise, with Haniyeh saying in May 2020 that “I am particularly specifying the Islamic Republic of Iran which has not faltered in supporting and funding the resistance financially, militarily, and technically.”
An Iranian report provided to the Iranian news outlet Tasnim News on the anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s death revealed how Iranian support for Hamas was coordinated at the highest levels of the Iranian government. “We [the Iranians] coordinated with the Hamas movement on the issue of missiles and how to build missile propulsion and warheads and guided systems. All this was done with the knowledge and supervision of Soleimani, and this was a very strategic issue for him,” the report says.
Notwithstanding its support for the terrorist organization, Iran does not receive total deference from Hamas, because Hamas also seeks the support of Arab countries as well as Turkey. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is more inclined to align with Iranian positions when it comes to the Gulf. In January 2022, PIJ held demonstrations that criticized Saudi Arabia over its role in Yemen’s war; and Hamas attempted to distance itself from the protests. Hamas does take a stand against anti-Iran protests, even when it comes to the war in Syria. In February 2022, a Salafist association organized a protest in support of displaced Syrian refugees. Hamas issued a statement condemning their activities, which included burning images of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders.
Sources in Lebanon told the Arab Weekly that a meeting in Beirut in January 2021 between Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah and Hamas political chief Haniyeh was focused on coordinating Iran’s regional agenda, particularly with respect to Egypt. According to this reporting, Iran opposed Egypt’s expanding influence, which owes in part to its successful brokering of the ceasefire to the 2021 Gaza Strip crisis.
Illegal Smuggling Operations
Hamas’s network of underground tunnels that are used to smuggle weapons, as well as goods, across the border with Egypt were a target of the Israeli airstrikes, but the Palestinian terrorist organizations are thought to be rebuilding the over 60 miles of demolished tunnels faster than expected. Sometimes referred to as “the Metro,” the tunnels have allowed Hamas to gather up to 500 million dollars a year in tax revenue on smuggled goods, a large share of the group’s annual budget, which The Counter Extremism Project estimated to be just under 900 million dollars. After deposing the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, the Egyptian government closed down the tunnels, which precipitated an economic crisis in Gaza.
Hamas also taxes goods and materials shipped over the border above land. A December 2021 Times of Israel piece reported that fuel and cement are among the many goods shipped into the enclave and taxed. Most of this money does not go to the Palestinian people, who are provided for largely by international aid, but is rather used to fund its powerful armed wing.
To curtail the smuggling operations of Hamas and other anti-Israel Palestinian factions, Israel enforces a blockade against the Gaza Strip. Despite the blockade, weapons and weapons components still make their way into the enclave. The tunnels are utilized to escape notice of the Israeli intelligence agencies. Reuters reported in May 2021 that Israeli officials said it was impossible to completely seal off the Gaza Strip. Moreover, rockets are manufactured out of such imported construction materials as metal tubes.
However, Hamas’s rudimentary weapons are not the only ones at its disposal. According to an expert at the Washington Institute, Hamas possessed up to 15,000 rockets at the start of the 2021 conflict, many of which were designed with Iranian technical support, with “enhanced accuracy, longer range, heavier warheads, and improved launchers like the A-120.” Additionally, Hamas is believed to have built and deployed six Shahab kamikaze drones that resemble Iran’s Abadil model. Iran is thought to be providing drones to its proxies in the region, including Hamas, though they are not “balance altering” weapons.
Hamas has modernized its financing operations to include cryptocurrency, in part because this type of currency is more difficult to trace than hard currency and can be used to circumvent sanctions. The Counter Extremism Project reported that in August 2020, US authorities seized more than one million dollars in cryptocurrency assets controlled by Hamas’s armed wing. The May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas resulted in an increase in donations for the group, including through bitcoin.
A US lawsuit filed in June 2020 alleged that Qatar funneled money to Hamas through Qatari financial institutions: Qatar Charity, Masraf Al Rayan, and Qatar National Bank. Qatar, known to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood—the group from which Hamas grew—permits a number of high-ranking Hamas officials to reside in the country. And it provides large sums of aid to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. In June 2020, the residents began receiving 100 million dollars in Qatari aid.
Palestinian residents in Gaza and the West Bank are also recipients of US economic aid. The Trump administration ended funding for UNRWA, a UN program focused on providing food and education in Palestinian territories, in 2018, but President Biden dedicated 150 million dollars to the program. Additionally, in April 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US would provide 75 million dollars in economic and development assistance, and 10 million dollars in peace-building programs. The US State Department claimed that the economic aid would not benefit Hamas. But this will be difficult given Hamas’s ability to manufacture weapons out of everyday construction materials.
Israel also plans on providing economic aid to Gaza if certain conditions are met. As of April 2021, Hamas was holding four Israeli hostages. The Israeli authorities made clear that they must be returned before Israel releases reconstruction aid for the Gaza Strip. This is not the first time Hamas has abducted Israeli citizens. In September 2021, an Israeli court ordered Hamas to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the families of teenagers their group kidnapped and murdered in 2014.
Hamas and the Abraham Accords
In October 2020, the leader of Hamas’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, called PA President Mahmoud Abbas to express his “absolute rejection” of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the UAE and Israel in the Abraham Accords. Part of the impetus for the Abraham Accords, signed between Israel and a number of Muslim-majority countries, was countering Iran.
The effect of these accords can be observed in the UAE’s response to the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. Seeking not to be too critical of the Israeli government, the UAE criticized Israel’s decision to enter the al-Aqsa mosque on the holiest day of the year, but did not condemn Israel’s airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the UAE has offered to provide funding to help rebuild Gaza in an effort to counter Qatar’s influence. However, the UAE is challenged, like the US, to provide funding in a way that does not benefit Hamas.
Hamas opposes any form of rapprochement between Jews and Muslims. A shooting that took place in December 2021 may have been Hamas’ response to Abbas’s trip to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s residence, the first such trip in over a decade; for the attack took place shortly after Hamas condemned the meeting. “This behavior by the leadership of the Palestinian authority deepens the Palestinian political divide… and weakens the rejection of normalization,” said Hamas’s spokesperson Hazem Qassem. As a result of the talks, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced: “confidence-building measures” that would streamline the entry of Palestinian business people into Israel.
Turkey hosted Israeli President Herzog in Ankara in the first trip by an Israeli head of state to the country since 2007. Experts believe that economic ties were among the topics discussed at the meeting. This meeting may have frayed relations with Hamas’s leader, who in the past visited Turkey often.