By Assaf Kfoury

Abstract: This article focuses on core events that lead to Hamas' emergence in the late 1980s, up through when it became Israel's implacable foe by the end of the 1990s. Analysis begins with history as early as the 1940s, documenting how this branch of the Muslim Brotherhood grew into one of the largest organized presences in Palestine.1

Hamas was formed in the late 1980s, an armed wing of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The older, transnational Islamist organization was founded in Egypt in 1928, having a small, organized presence in Palestine since at least the 1940s. From Gaza, Hamas later spread to the West Bank and nearby places of the Palestinian diaspora, notably Lebanon. To better understand Hamas’s history, one needs to examine the socioeconomic conditions, before and after its founding, which made Gaza fertile ground for its birth and later development.

This article does not give an account of those socioeconomic conditions and gradual deterioration over several decades in Gaza, nor more generally in the occupied Palestinian territory. Sara Roy’s concept of “de-development” captures Israel’s deliberate economic strangulation of the occupied Palestinian territory and particularly the high levels of unemployment and poverty in Gaza.2 This helps to explain the profound despair of a closed horizon that the people of Gaza have had to endure over the years, both literally and figuratively, since at least the 1960s.

This article instead focuses on the main events leading to Hamas’ emergence up until it became Israel’s implacable foe by the end of the 1990s. I brush over the consolidation of Hamas as the leading resistance organization since the early 2000s and omit its evolution over the last two decades, as it became more pragmatic, more distant from its religious roots, and more conciliatory towards secular strains of Palestinian resistance. It also became open to negotiations with Israel for a de facto permanent division of the land – which runs counter to the common view promoted by mainstream circles in the United States that Hamas is “dedicated to wiping Israel off the map” and that nothing short of that goal will satisfy it.3

If there is one thing that stands out in Israel’s policies regarding Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza as a whole, it is that they repeatedly backfired. This happened time and again with catastrophic consequences for Palestinians and Israelis.

Biding its time and avoiding armed resistance

In September 1973, a pious Palestinian schoolteacher, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, presided over the founding of al-Mujamma al-Islami (the “Islamic Gathering” or the “Islamic Gathering Center”) – or al-Mujamma for short – at a mosque in Gaza. Yassin was a refugee from al-Jura, a village destroyed in 1948 near the present-day city of Ashkelon in Israel. When he was a university student in Cairo in the late 1950s, Yassin joined the Muslim Brotherhood. After his return to Gaza in 1960 and through his activities in the Brotherhood, Yassin attracted a growing number of loyal followers. Although the Brotherhood had always had a presence in Gaza and the rest of Palestine dating back to the earliest years of its founding,4 al-Mujamma became henceforth the Brotherhood’s front and public face in Gaza.5

In contrast to earlier Palestinian members of the Brotherhood, Yassin adhered to a strict moralizing line in his sermons and preaching, which prioritized spiritual revival over active militancy. He maintained the same moralizing line even after Israel wrested control of Gaza from Egypt in 1967. Earlier Palestinian members of the Brotherhood, who had advocated active militancy and armed struggle, defected from the organization and were among those who founded the Fatah group in 1959. By the end of the 1960s, Fatah had become the largest and dominant party of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). 

It was Fatah and other nationalist groups under the PLO’s umbrella, such as the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which bore the brunt of resistance to Israel’s occupation of Gaza after 1967. Yassin, now head of the Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip, refused to join the resistance in any form. Some members of the Brotherhood even saw Egypt’s defeat and humiliation in 1967 as deserved punishment of “false prophets of liberation and revolution, deceitful heroes who have misled their people, exiled the preachers of Islam, [and] thrown into prison the purest Muslim youth.”6

The Israeli army under the command of General Ariel Sharon, then head of the southern command, led a brutal campaign for four years (1969-1973) to pacify Gaza. Known for his ruthlessness and praised by his fellow generals, Sharon was a man who believed that “our main weapon” for dealing with Palestinians was “the fear of us.”7 True to his word, Sharon’s campaign culminated in the killing of several nationalist leaders, the deportation of hundreds of their followers from Gaza to Jordan, and the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees within the Gaza Strip. Muhammad al-Aswad, known as “Gaza’s Guevara” and head of the PFLP’s military wing at the time, was killed in March 1973, which marked the end of Gaza’s open armed resistance.8 But this was only temporary, as Gaza was now reduced to smoldering embers that would reignite in later years under different leadership.

While the nationalist resistance groups were systematically dismantled and decimated, Yassin was taking advantage of Israel’s deliberate benign neglect to expand his network of charitable and social activities throughout the Gaza Strip. At the inauguration of al-Mujamma in September 1973, one of the guests of honor was the Israeli military governor of Gaza, General Shmuel Gonen. Israel’s obvious aim was to weaken the nationalist camp by encouraging an Islamist alternative. Six years later, in September 1979, the Israeli authorities went further in boosting al-Mujamma by recognizing it as a charity which could expand its social services openly, including the setting up of schools, clubs, and mosques. From 1967 to 1987, the number of mosques in the Gaza Strip rose from 200 to 600,9 all with al-Mujamma’s patronage, well-lubricated with funds from reactionary Saudi and Gulf sources.10

Israel’s divide-and-rule policy was assisted by intra-Palestinian conflicts. There were conflicts between Islamists and secular nationalists, and though the latter camp were all members of the PLO, there were conflicts between pro-communists and anti-communists. Palestinians were broadly divided into three political groupings and tendencies. Two of these, the Islamists and the pro-communist nationalists, harbored long-standing mutual animosity and irreconcilable differences, with the Islamists at this stage playing a negligible role in resisting Israel’s occupation. The third and largest grouping in the middle whose mainstay was Fatah – secular with various strains of third-world leftism – often played an ambiguous role in this array of forces, sometimes pursued its own divide-and-rule policy within the Palestinian arena.11

In December 1979, Fatah, with strong backing from al-Mujamma, tried and failed in an election to win the presidency of Gaza’s Red Crescent Society, whose pro-communist president, Haydar Abdel Shafi, was overwhelmingly reelected. A little over three years later, in January 1983, Fatah tried to turn the tables on al-Mujamma and lost again, this time in student elections won by a coalition (the “Islamic Bloc”) organized by al-Mujamma at the Islamic University, one of the oldest and largest university in the Gaza Strip.

Arming itself against the PLO

This kind of backstabbing and backstage maneuvering led to frequent clashes between the Islamists of al-Mujamma and the other Palestinian groups in Gaza throughout the first half of the 1980s. Partly in self-defense, al-Mujamma armed itself and moved away from its earlier quietist stance, especially now that it was being challenged by a smaller, more radical Islamist group—Islamic Jihad, founded in 1981 by more former members of the Muslim Brotherhood—which was excluded from the PLO. Initially, al-Mujamma focused its attacks on the PFLP and other pro-communist adversaries, but soon extended its attacks to Fatah and other members of the PLO. Throughout these disturbances in the early 1980s, the Israeli army mostly remained on the sidelines and did not intervene in any decisive way, letting internal Palestinian bloodletting take its own course unhindered, sometimes even encouraging it.12

In June 1984, a stealth raid by the Israeli army uncovered dozens of pistols and machine guns hidden in Yassin’s mosque. Though primarily intended to intimidate other Palestinian factions, possession of those weapons led to Yassin’s arrest and sentencing to thirteen years in prison, although he was freed in a prisoner exchange in May 1985. But this episode had a beneficial effect for Yassin because it tempered accusations he had long endured of profiting from the Israeli occupation, raising his reputation, and that of al-Mujamma, outside Islamist circles.

Following his release from prison in May 1985, Yassin set up an auxiliary security apparatus, Majd (acronym for Munazzamat al-Jihad wa al-Da'wa), headed by former student leader Yehya Sinwar (Hamas’ current leader in Gaza). The function of Majd was to protect Islamist social networks from other Palestinian factions and to suppress social deviancy (drugs, prostitution, adultery, etc.). Around the same time, they were increasingly challenged by Islamic Jihad to mount armed resistance. Because of this, Yassin set up another armed apparatus, al-Mujahidoon al-Filastiniyyoon (the “Palestinian fighters”), headed by another former student leader Salah Shehade (assassinated by Israel in 2002). But its members were quickly rounded up by Israeli authorities and had their arms confiscated. For Majd, which was then al-Mujamma’s first and only functioning armed branch, the priority remained the enemy within, not the Israeli occupier. 

Despite these incidents, the Israeli authorities were still banking on Yassin and al-Mujamma to become willing Israeli enforcers and to supplant the PLO which it regarded as the more formidable enemy. In 1986, Gaza’s military governor, General Yitzhak Segev, said, “We extend some financial aid to Islamic groups via mosques and religious schools in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO.”13 

In an internal memorandum dated March 1984, Avner Cohen, an advisor of Gaza’s Israeli commander, described al-Mujamma and the rest of the Islamist network as a golem14 – a creature in Jewish folklore formed out of lifeless substance which, when brought to life by ritual incantations, ultimately escapes (and in this case, turns against) its creator. From today’s vantage point, forty years later, this sounds prophetic. Perhaps the Islamist threat was not quite a golem as described, i.e. not a total creature of Israel, but a preexisting genie which would soon escape the Israeli bottle, with nothing able to push it back in.

The first Intifada and Hamas’ official beginning 

Against the background of a cruel settler-colonial occupation and deteriorating economic conditions,15 tensions reached a boiling point by the mid 1980s. The pent-up frustrations, grievances, and endless humiliations erupted on 8 December 1987. The trigger was an incident in which four Palestinian laborers from Gaza were killed when an Israeli military truck smashed into their cars. Demonstrations broke out in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp the next day, resulting in more Palestinians injured or killed by the Israeli military. Protests spread like wildfire to the rest of the Gaza Strip and then to the West Bank. The first Intifada had begun.16

Yassin and al-Mujamma were then posed with a dilemma: Either forgo their de-facto accommodation with the Israeli authorities or lose support among Palestinians in general, for whom legitimacy derived from national resistance to occupation, not from piety. After initial hesitation and internal deliberations, Yassin, with the majority of al-Mujamma’s most prominent members, resolved the contradiction by announcing the formation of Hamas on 14 December 1987, whose stated goal now included national liberation.17 Eight months later, in August 1988, Hamas published its founding manifesto, the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement.18 The Hamas Covenant was a mixture of the Brotherhood’s socially puritanical version of Islam, concessions to the nationalism espoused by the PLO, and a superficial rehash of Eurocentric antisemitism. It retained all of al-Mujamma’s pre-Intifada social agenda, while blurring the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism that the PLO’s National Charter had insisted on.19

The first Intifada was a remarkable uprising, spearheaded by young Palestinians, organized in networks of popular committees throughout the occupied territory.20 They defied the Israeli military with stones and slingshots, not with guns and firearms, thus giving the uprising its commonly used second name, the “Stone Intifada.” Despite the Israeli military’s violent repression, the consensus among local PLO-affiliated groups was against the use of firearms, which remained in place for the entire five-year duration of the uprising. Clandestine communiques were distributed at night throughout the West Bank and Gaza, bearing the signature of the newly-formed underground Unified National Command of the Uprising (UNCU). The UNCU was comprised of the four principal PLO-affiliated groups: Fatah, the PFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP, later renamed the Palestinian People's Party).21

Hamas kept its separate identity and was not part of the UNCU, but it could not remain on the sideline indefinitely without hurting its own standing as a resistance group. It joined protests and boycotts, while also issuing its own separate communiques, only sometimes concordant with those of the UNCU.22 Hamas’s military wing, Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, was formed more than three years later in the summer of 1991. Although Hamas members had engaged in isolated armed actions in earlier years of the Intifada, such as the two separate armed abductions in 1989 which resulted in the killing of two Israeli soldiers,23 Al-Qassam Brigades inaugurated a new, more violent phase in Hamas’ trajectory.

Unable to decapitate the local Intifada leadership of the UNCU – secretive, disciplined, and tightly knitted – Israel blamed the uprising on the PLO leadership in its Tunisian exile. “There’s a few hotheads being roused by phone calls from Abu Jihad in Tunis,” declared Yitzhak Rabin.24 Israel targeted PLO officials in the Palestinian diaspora, culminating in the assassination of several top leaders, including Khalil al-Wazir, aka Abu Jihad, one of Fatah’s co-founders, in April 1988. 

Despite the vitriol of its propaganda against Israel, Hamas’ relations with the Israeli authorities remained quiet for many months into the first Intifada, with the Israeli army “never interfering with Hamas’s strike days.”25 In March 1988, Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Islamist and co-founder of Hamas, even met with Shimon Peres, then Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, offering a tacit recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders.26 And again, in the summer of 1988, Zahar and Ibrahim Yazouri, another prominent Islamist figure, had meetings with Yitzhak Rabin.27 According to Graham Usher, a keen observer at the time, “the purpose of these meetings was to politically undermine the PLO’s claim to being the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”28 It was not to negotiate an end to the Intifada, as no group outside of the UNCU was able to single-handedly contain nor stop the uprising. 

In late 1988, Hamas abandoned its contacts with Israeli officials and openly demarcated its position from that of the PLO. Hamas was banking on the failure of any PLO-led negotiation with Israel in pursuit of a diplomatically-negotiated independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.29 It was not until June 1989, after discovering that Hamas members were behind the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers, that Israel finally declared Hamas an illegal movement. This was 18 months after the outbreak of the uprising, and nearly one year after Israel had banned all popular committees affiliated with the PLO and the UNCU. Up until this point, Israel had believed it could manipulate a socially conservative movement and stop it from morphing into a lethal, religious-based armed group.

The Oslo Accords and Israel’s “divide and rule” policy

The Declaration of Principles (DOP), a prelude to the first of two Oslo Accords, was signed by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993.30 The stage was now set for turning the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), into an enforcer of Israel’s rule. Mustapha Barghouti, at the time a prominent leftwing Palestinian activist, said: “Oslo was the greatest idea Israel ever had. It let them continue the occupation without paying any of the costs.”31

By the time the second Oslo Accord was signed in September 1995, the spirit and hopes that motivated the Madrid conference, at least on the Palestinian side, had effectively evaporated.32 Trust in the Tunis-based PLO leadership was irrevocably broken and marked the beginning of an unraveling that persists to this day. 

A major beneficiary of the Oslo agreements and post-Oslo period was undoubtedly Hamas, who were the main party that did not fall for an illusory peace agreement. The banner of resistance was now left to an emboldened Hamas, further enhanced by its exclusion from a discredited PLO. While Islamism had been a minor strain in Palestinian politics up until the late 1970s or early 1980s, by the early 2000s, Hamas had become the main party of resistance to Israel’s occupation.33

For years, Israel has targeted and killed Hamas leaders, just as it had targeted and killed PLO leaders in earlier decades, up until the Oslo Accords. Most recently, Israel assassinated Hamas’s deputy political leader, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut on January 2, 2024. 

But Israel has repeatedly failed to decapitate Hamas because of its practice of “collegial leadership” and an “effective leadership-training process.” Just how effective this process has been was clearly demonstrated on October 7.

Playing on internal Palestinian tensions to weaken resistance to its rule has been a constant policy of Israel. Until the second year of the first Intifada, Israel banked on Hamas and the Islamists to counter the nationalists and the leftists affiliated with the Fatah-dominated PLO. But Hamas and the Islamists came out stronger from that game. 

After the Oslo Accords, Israel had to deal with two rival Palestinian centers of authority, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. In 2006, Hamas beat Fatah in the election for the Legislative Council (the Palestinian parliament), largely because Fatah was increasingly perceived as a subcontractor for Israeli occupation. This led to factional fighting and the division of the Palestinian territories under two separate administrations: Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank. Even though the PA acted as an enforcer of Israel’s rule, Israel also kept it weak and unable to compete with Hamas in Gaza. 

All Israeli leaders have tried to play the “divide-and-rule” game. Even as recently as March 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu told an audience of Likud members: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”34 This strategy blew up in Netanyahu’s face on October 7.


1: In writing this article, I have borrowed freely from the work of others I have long appreciated. Besides my own experience of having lived through or nearby many of the early recounted events, I have relied mostly, but not only, on the excellent writings of several scholars. Most notably among the latter are Rashid Khalidi (Department of History, Columbia University), Jean-Pierre Filiu (Middle East Studies, Paris School of International Affairs), and Sara Roy (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University), whose statements I could also corroborate from my own reading of texts in Arabic. I finalized the article after taking into account careful comments from three friends and fellow mathematical scientists who read a preliminary draft – Ahmed Abbes, Oded Goldreich, and Haynes Miller.

2: Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development (Expanded Third Edition), Institute of Palestine Studies, 2016. For a book covering socioeconomic conditions in both Gaza and the West Bank, Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

3: See, for example, Thomas L. Friedman, “Only Biden and M.B.S. Can Redirect the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,New York Times, Feb. 13, 2024 or Thomas L. Friedman, “A Peace Initiative Emerges Out of Deadly Violence,” New York Times, Feb. 15, 2024.

4: Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimoun Al-Filastiniyyoun: Al-Tanzeem Al-Filastini – Qita’ Ghazza (“The Palestinian Muslim Brothers: The Palestinian Organization – Gaza Strip”), Zaytouna Center, Beirut 2020, pp. 27-40. Other authors mark the earliest activities of the Brotherhood in Gaza (and in other parts of Palestine) in the year 1943 and 1944, see for example, Khaled Hroub, Hamas, A Beginner’s Guide, Pluto Press, London 2010, p. 8.

5: Until the founding of Hamas in December 1987, I will stress that al-Mujamma was the distinctive face of the Brotherhood in Gaza, separate from the Brotherhood’s presence in other parts of Palestine, as argued by Jean-Pierre Filiu, The Origins of Hamas: Militant Legacy or Israeli Tool?J. of Palestine Studies, Vol. XLI, No. 3 (Spring 2012), pp. 54–70.

6: Adnan Abu Amir, Al-Haraka Al-Islamiyya fi Qita’ Ghazza (“The Islamic Movement in the Gaza Strip”), Markaz Al-A’lam Al-Arabi, Cairo 2006, p. 17.

7: Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, Google Books, p. 281.

8: Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 286-287.

9: Ziad Abu Amr, “Hamas: A Historical and Political Background,” J. of Palestine Studies, Vol. XXII, No. 4, 1993, p. 8.

10: Jean-Pierre Filiu, Why Gaza Matters,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 103, No. 1, January/February 2024, p. 9/13. J.-P. Filiu further elaborates the ways in which Israel was playing off the Brotherhood led by Yassin against the Fatah-dominated PLO.

11: Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza, A History, Oxford University Press, 2014; Leila Seurat, The Foreign Policy of Hamas, I.B. Tauris, 2022, Chapter 1; and Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993, Oxford University Press, 1997, Part III, pp. 329-552.

12: Salim Tamari, What the Uprising Means,” Middle East Report, May-June 1988, p. 29.

13: Quoted in Mehdi Hassan, “Blowback: How Israel Went from Helping Create Hamas to Bombing it,” The Intercept, Feb. 19, 2018.

14: Quoted in Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The Origin of Hamas: Militant Legacy or Israeli Tool,” J. of Palestine Studies, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Spring 2012, p. 55. Also quoted in Charles Enderlin, Le Grand Aveuglement: Israël et l'irrésistible ascension de l'islam radical, Albin Michel, 2009, p. 117.

15: Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development (Expanded Third Edition), Institute of Palestine Studies, 2016.

16: Roger Heacock, The First Intifada, 1987-1993, Exhilaration of Revolt, Promise of Freedom, in The Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question.

17: Khaled Hroub, op. cit., pp. 11-13. The name Hamas is an Arabic acronym of Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiyya (the “Islamic Resistance Movement”) which, as a word, also means “enthusiasm” or “ardor."

18: Muhammad Maqdsi, “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine,” J. of Palestine Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, Summer 1993, pp. 122-134.

19: In 2017, Hamas issued Document of General Principles and Policies. Though still imbued with Islamic references, the Document describes the conflict with Israel in terms that are more political than religious, and includes explicit statements to counter the antisemitic tone of the earlier Covenant, such as “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion.”

20: Noam Chomsky, “The Oslo Accords: Their Context, Their Consequences,” in P. Bauck and M. Omer eds., The Oslo Accords 1993-2013, The American University in Cairo Press, 2013, page 3).

21: Roger Heacock, op. cit. Edward Said, “Intifada and Independence,” Social Text , Spring 1989, No. 22, pp. 37-38-39.

22: Roger Heacock, op. cit.

23: Wikipedia, Killing of Avi Sasportas and Ilan Saadon.

24: Salim Tamari, “What the Uprising Means,” Middle East Report, May-June 1988, p. 27.

25: Zeev Schiff, Ehud Yaari, Intifada, The Palestinian Uprising – Israel's Third Front, Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 234.

26: Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza, A History, Oxford Univ Press, 2014, p. 206.

27: Graham Usher, Dispatches From Palestine, The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Peace Process, Pluto Press, 1999, p. 20.

28: Graham Usher, op. cit., Chapter 2, footnote 13.

29: Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza, A History, Oxford Univ Press, 2014, p. 206-207.

30: Allegra Pacheco, “Flouting Convention: The Oslo Agreements,” in The New Intifada, Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, edited by Roane Carey, 2001, Chap. 10.

31: Please put in proper reference.

32: N. Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New, Pluto Press, 1997, pp. 464-503.

33: Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company, 2020, Chap. 5, entitled “The Fifth Declaration of War, 1987-1995.”

34: Gidi Weitz, “Another Concept Implodes: Israel Can’t Be Managed by a Criminal Defendant,” Haaretz, Oct 9, 2023.

Assaf Kfoury is a mathematician, professor of computer science at Boston University, and long-time political commentator, especially on events in the Middle East. He is an Arab American of Lebanese-Palestinian background, who grew up between Lebanon and Egypt, and frequently returns to the Middle East. His last visit to the Gaza Strip was in October 2012, invited for a one-week stay by the Mathematics Department at the Islamic University, which took place shortly after the events of the Arab Spring when some of the restrictions on travel from Egypt to the Gaza Strip had been lifted.

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Mar 6, 2024
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