1989 is often remembered for momentous developments in the Cold War, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Less widely recognized, both then and now, that year also marked the rise of Hamas, the terrorist group that today controls the Gaza Strip. Indeed, were it not for a series of events that took place three decades ago, it is unlikely that Hamas would have become the force in Islamist politics that it is today.
Hamas’s origins predate 1989. It even predates Israel’s 1948 statehood—a fact obscured by several anti-Israel academics and commentators at The Washington Post’s WorldViews blog, Al Jazeera and The Intercept, among elsewhere. The group’s 1988 Covenant explicitly states that it is “one of the wings of [the] Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine.” The Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna and expanded rapidly during the 1930s and 40s, aided in part by support from the Axis powers.
A Sept. 22, 1947 U.S. intelligence report estimated that the Brotherhood’s branch in British-ruled Mandate Palestine had several thousand members, with a headquarters in Jerusalem where, as a neighbor reported, they read from the Koran, prepared for “a jihad,” and chanted “Allah Akbar” after messages from al-Banna were broadcast on a loudspeaker. After Israel’s 1948 War of Independence—in which a contingent of Brotherhood members, many trained by the Egyptian Army, fought in the south—Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt held the Gaza Strip. The result was that the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood was split into two separate geographic entities. It would take another war to bring them together.
The 1967 Six Day War ended with both an Israeli victory over the Arab armies and Israeli control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Ironically, the latter helped unify the two Brotherhood branches. And the former led to a loss in popular support for the Arab nationalism embodied by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement gained influence at Arab nationalism’s expense.
But as Jonathan Schanzer noted in his 2008 book, Hamas vs. Fatah, “By the late 1970s, the Israelis believed that they had found Fatah’s Achilles’ heel…Fatah had become anxious over the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza” and arguments between the two movements “sometimes turned violent, spilling into the streets.” In an effort to undermine Arafat’s Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), “the Israelis made the ill-fated decision to permit the Brotherhood to operate with relatively little oversight.” In 1973, the Israeli government allowed a Muslim cleric named Ahmed Yassin to operate an Islamic Center. It would become the operational center for the Brotherhood.
Yassin used the Center to expand the Brotherhood’s reach via a network of healthcare, daycare and food services. The Brotherhood was filling a void left by the Fatah-dominated PLO, which was busy carrying out terror attacks abroad from its home base in Lebanon and later Tunis. Awash in cash from Arab states and its chief patron, the Soviet Union, the PLO was increasingly viewed as both out-of-touch and corrupt.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 led to a fissure in the Brotherhood, with several zealous members, inspired by the example set in Tehran, breaking away to form Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). In contrast to Yassin and others, PIJ demanded an immediate confrontation with Israel. By the mid-1980s, after PIJ had carried out several major attacks, Israel began to clamp down, arresting and imprisoning operatives of the terror group.
But as Schanzer noted, “thanks to PIJ, more elements from within the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood called for active participation in ‘resistance’ activities against Israel.” The Brotherhood was further emboldened by the First Intifada, which erupted in December 1987 after a car accident between an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) truck and a car of Palestinians.
Shortly thereafter, Yassin’s followers in Gaza announced the creation of an umbrella organization, Harakat al-Mueqawamma al-Islamiyya, whose acronym, Hamas, meant “zeal” in Arabic. Largely comprised of members younger than the aging Fatah cadre, Hamas began distributing pamphlets that covered everything from the group’s “ideology to logistics surrounding strikes.” The group’s 1988 charter, meanwhile, asserted, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad” and claimed that Jews controlled “imperialist countries” and fomented revolutions and wars.
1989, however, enshrined Hamas’s ascent.
Beginning in January, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) sought to wrest control from the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), which served as the principal organizing body during the Intifada. Hamas leaders and schools began to refuse to cooperate with Fatah elements during the Intifada, declaring their independence.
By February, “Hamas for the first time took credit for kidnapping Israeli soldiers,” Schanzer records. In May, July, October, and November, the group launched terrorist attacks, murdering 22 Israelis—16 of them civilians. Israel responded by rounding up hundreds of Hamas members, including Yassin who, in June 1989, reportedly admitted to being its founder and leader. By September, Israel officially designated Hamas as a terrorist group—ironically enhancing their “street cred.”
Israel’s crackdown forced Hamas to restructure into cells—a move copied from its rival, Fatah. At the direction of top operative Musa Abu Marzook, some Hamas members left and began to establish bases in Amman, Jordan and Springfield, Virginia, where Marzook lived until his 1997 deportation. Hamas’s new command structure “enabled the perpetuation of a campaign of terror and violence against Israel that continued for decades,” Schanzer noted.
Perhaps most importantly, on Nov. 16, 1989 Hamas announced that it had formed an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Relations between the two would wax and wane over the next three decades, but Tehran’s support has been crucial to Hamas’s power. Without Iranian largess, it is unlikely that Hamas would have survived, much less grown to mount a full-scale challenge to Fatah, eventually seizing the Gaza Strip after besting the older movement in 2006 elections.
“By the end of 1989,” Schanzer observes, “Hamas appeared to command the respect of nearly all Palestinians.” This was “best demonstrated by the fact that, when it called for a general strike in the Palestinian territories on Christmas Day in 1989, despite the protests of Palestinian Christians, the strike was obeyed.”
It was a fast—and for both Palestinians and Israelis, fateful—ascent. Three decades later, including Hamas’s suicide bombings of the 1990s, no fewer than five wars have been fought between Israel and the terrorist group.
“History,” the novelist Philip Roth wrote, is “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.”
(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Dec. 22, 2019)