Journalist Paola Caridi has dedicated many years in Jerusalem to studying the Islamic movement Hamas. Co-founder of Lettera 22, she is also the author of the book “Hamas,” which will be updated and released by Seven Stories in November.
Let’s start from the beginning. In what context did Hamas originate, and what were its objectives?
Hamas originated from the Muslim Brotherhood, a few years before its official establishment in 1987, following the debacle of the Palestinian movement during the Lebanese civil war. At that moment, within what would become Hamas, a reflection emerged: we should not involve ourselves in the internal affairs of other countries. The initial years were not only about consolidation but also about taking a stance against the Oslo process, which Hamas rejected. Even today, Hamas is not part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and positioned itself as an alternative to both Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority. The first significant turning point occurred around 1994 when Hamas started using terrorist tactics. During the Second Intifada, Hamas was responsible for the most bloody attacks. The second turning point happened in 2005 when the entire Muslim Brotherhood in the region attempted to enter political games, engaging in representative democracy.
This shift marked a change in the political and military tools that determine Gaza’s fate.
An example is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which participated in the 2005 parliamentary elections. This motivated Hamas to consider participating in political elections, even though it did not recognize the Oslo process. The decision matured during a particular period: the leader of the movement, Sheikh Yassin, was killed, Arafat died, and the landscape of Palestinian leadership changed. Hamas decided to suspend suicide attacks. In 2006, to its own surprise, the movement won the elections. However, this victory led to Israel, Europe, and the USA boycotting the new Palestinian government. The subsequent rift and conflict between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 led Hamas to take control of Gaza. The movement transformed: for the first time, it controlled a piece of territory. It evolved from a movement to a regime, resulting in the militarization of the Al-Qassam Brigades, which on October 7, 2023, demonstrated its level of military preparedness by entering Israel and committing war crimes.
Hamas certainly anticipated the Israeli response. How did they prepare?
Certainly, the operation was prepared for months. But there is an added element: the failure of Israeli intelligence surprised not only Israel and the world but also Hamas. They probably did not expect to encounter no obstacles, no soldiers to fight against. We always look at the security narrative from the Israeli side, but we seldom consider the Palestinian perspective. Hamas likely imagined that there would be a physical confrontation with the army, which did not happen.
What were the goals behind the attack?
It stemmed from the political question of the positioning of the Arab world, particularly after the prospect of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hamas probably raised concerns about further marginalization, especially in light of Riyadh’s recent thaw with Iran, leading to fears of a possible weakening of the alliance between Hamas and Tehran.
Are there divisions within Hamas?
Last year, there was a sort of reshuffle in the leadership: the more hardline faction, represented by Yahya Sinwar, who was released by Netanyahu as part of the negotiation for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, won the internal elections. Since then, Sinwar has experienced a very rapid rise. Since Gaza is the only political and geographical space where Hamas exercises power and possesses military strength, the Gaza leadership has grown, from a local to a regional level, putting itself on par with the leadership abroad. Remember, we are talking about a secretive and clandestine movement about which we know very little, especially its military wing.
Let’s talk about consensus, about Hamas’s roots in Palestinian society. How broad is it? And are there differences between Gaza and the West Bank?
There is a difference because Gaza is the only geographical and political space where Hamas has power and where it has transformed into a regime, even in the bureaucratic sense of the term. In recent years, the population of Gaza has increasingly expressed its dissent, not with consolidated movements but mostly in the virtual world and in the actions of young people, protests that Hamas has suppressed. It is not accurate to say that the entire population of Gaza consists of human shields, nor that everyone supports Hamas: there is a much more diverse dimension than the adherence of two million people to Hamas. The same situation is observed in the West Bank, where Fatah suppresses Hamas militants who have gone underground. There are no polls that can provide indications about Palestinian political preferences. But there is a visible element: since 2021, an increasingly substantial part of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Israeli cities no longer identifies with a party, with a structured movement, but increasingly channels its political commitment in other ways. This is especially true among the younger generations.
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