GazaWATCH: Militant Groups


Hamas, which means zeal in Arabic and is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamat al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a fundamentalist Palestinian Islamist organization created with the goal of destroying Israel. Through its branches that engage in politics, governance, social work, and terrorism, Hamas currently controls the Gaza Strip and, therefore, significantly influences Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs today.


Hamas’s origins are rooted in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that believes the Arab World’s problems resulted from Muslims turning away from religion and adopting a more secular, Western life. The group’s solution, therefore, is to promote traditional Islamic values and morals through religious education and social work, or da’wa, as the way to bring Muslims closer to the religion. A return to Islam was seen as the only solution to the hardship that had befallen Muslim societies.

The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, was the first to promote jihad as a tool for fighting the West. In its early years the Brotherhood openly advocated violence against any group standing in its way of spreading Islam in Egypt and the larger Middle East, such as the British who held Egypt under colonial rule, and successive secular Egyptian governments.

Until the creation of Hamas in 1987, its predecessor, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood run by Ahmed Yassin, focused heavily on charity projects in Gaza, establishing a network of schools, clinics, a library, and kindergartens—a network that is, to this day, largely responsible for Hamas’s popularity. Sheikh Yassin, however, also advocated jihad and hatred against Israel. For example, Yassin reprinted the vitriolic work of Sayyid Qutb—”the father of uncompromising militant Islam”[1]—and distributed his writings to Gaza’s citizens. But because Yassin and his followers did not openly advocate violence against Israel, and Israel viewed him as a counterweight to its biggest problem then, Fatah (also dedicated to Israel’s destruction), Yassin was allowed to operate relatively freely throughout the Gaza Strip. What Israel failed to understand was that Yassin was indoctrinating those involved in his charity network with a culture of hate and “martyrdom.”

In 1987, the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, broke out. After years of working on the ground Yassin and six members of his group launched Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian terrorist organization that focused on destroying Israel through violent jihad.

Ideology and Policies

Hamas combines the ideologies of Palestinian nationalism with Islamic extremism to appeal to Palestinians on both a religious and national level. Like the Brotherhood that came before it, Hamas views Muslims turning away from religion as the reason for the loss of their country that never was €””Palestine.” Hamas uses violent jihad and indoctrination as its two primary weapons of reaching its goal. Hamas’s primary aspiration is to ensure that its armed struggle against Israel carries on until Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a first phase, and then the entire Middle East as the second and final phase. In its place, Hamas would establish an Islamic Palestinian state that is ruled by Sharia, Islamic law. The organization saw some success in its first phase when Israel fully withdrew all of its people and institutions from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Hamas will never recognize Israel because the Jewish state exists on what it sees as Islamic only, or waqf, lands; it is a religious issue. As its charter states: “This [waqf] is the status [of the land] in Islamic Shari’a, and it is similar to all lands conquered by Islam by force, and made thereby Waqf lands upon their conquest, for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection.” Like this quotation, Hamas’s charter, published in 1988, clearly outlines the group’s beliefs and ambitions. Some of the movement’s central tenets are displayed in the following excerpts:

  • Violence: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” (Prelude)”[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement…. There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” (Article 13)”And this [jihad] becomes an individual duty binding on every Muslim man and woman; a woman must go out and fight the enemy even without her husband’s authorization, and a slave without his masters’ permission.” (Article 12)”When our enemies usurp some Islamic lands, Jihad becomes a duty binding on all Muslims. In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad.” (Article 15)
  • Territorial goals: “[Hamas] derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” (Article 6)
  • Anti-Semitism: “Our enemy pursues the style of collective punishment of usurping people’s countries and properties…. It has resorted to breaking bones, opening fire on women and children and the old, with or without reason, and to setting up detention camps where thousands upon thousands are interned in inhuman conditions. In addition, it destroys houses, renders children orphans and issues oppressive judgments against thousands of young people who spend the best years of their youth in the darkness of prisons. The Nazism of the Jews does not skip women and children, it scares everyone. They make war against people’s livelihood, plunder their moneys and threaten their honor.” (Article 20)”The enemies have been scheming for a long time, and they have consolidated their schemes, in order to achieve what they have achieved. They took advantage of key elements in unfolding events, and accumulated a huge and influential material wealth…. This wealth [permitted them to] take over control of the world media such as news agencies, the press, publication houses, broadcasting and the like. [They also used this] wealth to stir revolutions in various parts of the globe…. They stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions and behind most of the revolutions we hear about here and there. They also used the money to establish clandestine organizations which are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests…. As regards local and world wars, it has come to pass and no one objects, that they stood behind World War I, so as to wipe out the Islamic Caliphate…. They also stood behind World War II, where they collected immense benefits…. There was no war that broke out anywhere without their fingerprints on it.” (Article 22)
  • Welfare: “Social solidarity consists of extending help to all the needy, both materially and morally, or assisting in the execution of certain actions. It is incumbent upon the members of the Hamas to look after the interests of the masses the way they would look after their own interests.” (Article 21)
  • Nationalism: “Nothing is loftier or deeper in Nationalism than waging Jihad against the enemy and confronting him when he sets foot on the land of the Muslims.” (Article 12)
  • Islamism: “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.” (Article 8)”As to the objectives: discarding the evil, crushing it and defeating it, so that truth may prevail, homelands revert [to their owners], calls for prayer be heard from their mosques, announcing the reinstitution of the Muslim state. Thus, people and things will revert to their true place.” (Article 9)

While some observers argue that Hamas has moderated its ideology and undergone some type of pragmatic transformation since writing the Charter in 1988,[2] this is not the case. Hamas’s seeming acceptance of the two-state solution is anything but. Hamas “accepts” the idea of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem only because it sees that state as the first phase in its long-term plan of completely destroying Israel. Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar openly acknowledged this much in May 2011 when he said that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state “on any part of Palestine” but would not recognize Israel, as that would “cancel the right of the next generations to liberate the lands.” And Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, recently made it clear that it considers all of Israel as “occupied” land to be liberated. In November 2011, after four rockets were launched from Lebanon and landed in northern Israel, the Brigades posted on its site that the rockets landed in “northern occupied territories.”

Similarly, Usama Hamdan, head of Hamas’s international relations, in July 2011 stated at a conference in Cairo that “[t]he conflict will never come to an end until Israel comes to an end…. We then clearly said that we will never recognize Israel, and today I say more than that: Israel completely doesn’t exist in our political or intellectual dictionary.” Hamdan also told Egypt’s El-Amal Party in an interview that same month that Hamas’s “resistance” would continue “until the liberation of the lands of Palestine from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river.”

That Hamas leaders continue to refuse to renounce violence against Israel, amass weapons in Gaza, call for the annihilation of the Jewish people and Israel, and promote “martyrdom” is a glaring sign that the group has not become more moderate over time.

Past and Present Leadership

Hamas’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was the leader and mentor of Hamas in the territories until killed in a targeted strike by Israel in March 2004. As leader, Yassin was the ideological force behind the militant group that believes “Islam is the only answer.” He authorized and directed all Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel and provided financial assistance to terrorists. Following his death, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a co-founder of Hamas, was chosen to head the organization. Rantisi had solidified his position within the organization’s leadership following the outbreak of violence in September 2000 by promoting suicide attacks against Israel and the abduction of Israeli soldiers. An extremist, he opposed cease-fire agreements with Israel and political arrangements between Palestinians and Israel.

One month after Yassin’s death, Rantisi was also assassinated. Since then, Hamas has refrained from stating its leaders’ names outright. However, Ismail Haniyeh is largely considered Hamas’s chief in the Gaza Strip, and Khaled Mashaal is known to be Hamas’s political leader in exile. In April 2012 Haaretz reported that Ismail Haniyeh was chosen to lead the Gaza Strip’s political bureau in secret elections held earlier that month. Hamas denied the report but, if true, the victory would make Haniyeh the first recognized Hamas political leader in Gaza since Rantisi.

Ismail Haniyeh, though close with Yassin and a Hamas member from a young age, was not very well known until chosen to lead Hamas’s campaign for the 2006 Palestinian elections. Known as the de facto prime minister in Gaza, Haniyeh is often described as more moderate than other Hamas leaders because of his seeming willingness to negotiate with Israel. In truth, however, Haniyeh is no moderate. He ran Hamas’s “security” wing and Yassin’s office, and today he continues to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist and call for its destruction. In April 2007, Haniyeh said in an interview, “The concept of a Palestinian state is clear in our view: ‘Palestine’ within its borders and its legitimate historical heritage [meaning all of Israel.] However, we don’t have a problem with a unity government in this phase. We are in agreement with our brother Palestinians and Arabs about establishing a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders with Jerusalem as the capital. We are telling everyone that we have an objective for this phase, as well as a national goal.” Indeed, this quote may help explain Hamas’s move in May 2011 to agree to form a unity government with Fatah. That government, if dominated by Hamas, could bring the terror organization one step closer to its ultimate goal: Israel’s destruction.

Outside of Gaza, Khaled Mashaal has led the Hamas politburo since 2004, a leadership body separate from Hamas’s government in the Strip. In this position, Mashaal controls the broader Hamas organization and works as its top diplomat, visiting countries and forging relations. Mashaal, like Haniyeh, is no moderate. In August 2010, he called the attempt at Palestinian Authority (PA)-Israel talks “illegitimate.” In an interview that same year, he noted that Hamas would accept a “state of Palestine on the basis of the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as the capital, and the right of refugees to return.” Again, while this may seem like Hamas has moderated its stance, this is not the case. Accepting the right of all refugees to return is tantamount to demographic suicide for Israel as it would usher in millions of Palestinian Arabs to Israel and potentially bring about the end of a Jewish-majority state. Mashaal is aware that this is the case and that Israel could never accept such an offer, so until then he and other leaders champion armed “resistance” as the legitimate tool to combat the “occupation.”

Organization and Governance

After two Hamas leaders were assassinated in 2004, the movement made a strategic decision to refrain from publicly discussing its leaders and leadership structures. At this time it is unclear as to who controls the overall Hamas strategy, policy, and financial decisions. While the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has its own structures, the State Department explains that Hamas follows a hierarchical structure in which ultimate control rests with a 15-member political bureau and consultative, or shura, council outside of Gaza. In this model, when orders come from the external leadership they are carried out by local committees and branches on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza. Based in Damascus between 2001 and 2012, Hamas leadership structures in exile are now spread across a handful of countries in the Middle East due to the Arab Uprising in Syria. Because of this, the Hamas hierarchical structure may be changing, as reports in 2012 indicate that control over the movement is shifting from the leadership in exile to the leaders in Gaza. Hamas denied the reports.

Hamas’s role in Palestinian affairs drastically altered after the organization forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. In an instant, Hamas went from a militant/political movement to a governing body, essentially tasked with running its own mini-state. The stress of such a transition was lessened only by the fact that PA governing structures existed in Gaza since 1994. Hamas went into action, filling government positions with Hamas loyalists, creating Hamas security forces, and violently suppressing any political and military group that opposed Hamas’s rule.

It reportedly took Hamas a quick six months to fully control all governance functions in Gaza[3] and by June 2008, the Palestinian Monetary Authority was the only PA entity in Gaza not taken over by Hamas.[4] Following the takeover, Hamas filled the tens of thousands of newly vacant government positions opened by the fighting and a strike by PA employees with Gazans loyal to it. Its paramilitary Executive Force (or Tanfithia), established in 2006 and manned by Hamas activists and members of the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, was divided into three branches for internal use: the Civil Police, the Internal Security Forces—an intelligence agency, and the National Security Forces that controls the border.[5] While Hamas holds that these forces are separate from the al-Qassam Brigades, such claims are disputed by many including Hamas members andIsraeli intelligence that believes al-Qassam militants and internal security operatives are interchangeable.[6]

Upon taking control Hamas also restructured Gaza’s legal system and established some 30 “Islamic Conciliation Committees” as an informal means of solving problems based on Sharia. Functioning under the jurisdiction of the executive branch, the system fully eroded judicial independence. In the formal sector, Hamas revived military courts as well as the criminal justice system—the latter by replacing the attorney general with a “supreme justice” and Gaza’s 44 judges with ones that are more Hamas-friendly.[7]

Gaza’s ministries and agencies under Hamas are reportedly coordinated and efficient in their work. They have active and regularly updated websites—many of which are interactive and allow users to ask for service requests—and their workers are regularly trained. The work of the governing offices is very much complimented by Hamas’s grassroots organizations, such as its neighborhood reconciliation committees and da’wa arm for religious outreach and teaching.[8]

As for governance structures, each Gaza district has its own shura council and Administrative Association whose members are elected every two-to-three years. The results of the elections are kept secret. Those members, however, are responsible for electing representatives to Gaza’s administrative bodies and overall shura council from within their ranks. Members of Gaza’s Political Office, the Hamas executive body, are then chosen from Gaza’s reigning shura council,[9] which is responsible for ensuring that government policies align with the policies of the larger Hamas organization.[10] The overall decision-making process for Hamas in Gaza is unclear, but analysts believe it includes the shura council in exile as well as regional ones, the politburo in exile, and leaders from Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades. However, analysts have observed that Hamas’s take-over of Gaza and the power that the leadership gained there has lessened the influence of the Hamas politburo in exile in overall decision-making.[11] In addition, in light of the changes caused by the Arab Uprising of 2011—specifically, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in power and Bashar al-Asad of Syria’s loss of influence—Hamas’sexternal leadership may be losing control over the organization to Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Inside Gaza, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in Gaza City handle the business of creating and passing legislation. All legislators are associated with Hamas and the Gaza PLC meets “as an exclusively Hamas body, since other factions do not recognize its legitimacy.”[12] The Hamas ministers meet weekly for Cabinet meetings[13] to discuss issues and pass bills, for example, involving the budget or the regulation of associations.[14]


Image: The Organizational Structure of Hamas, 2010 Source: Michael Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 43.
Image: The Organizational Structure of Hamas, 2010
Source: Michael Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 43.


Hamas engages in social work in the Gaza Strip (and in the West Bank before 2007) funding schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, sports leagues, summer camps, and more. Hamas’s largest rival group, Fatah, was never as involved in such services, allowing Hamas to dominate the field. Many believe Hamas’s social services network was thereason for its 2006 electoral victory.

But while Hamas’s social network allows it to bolster popular support, the network also provides the movement with a means of spreading its Islamist and fundamentalist ideas. Hamas’s social institutions “provide an ideal logistical support network,” explains Matthew Levitt, former FBI counterterrorism analyst. “The charity committees, mosque classes, student unions, sport clubs, and other organizations run by Hamas all serve as places where Hamas activists recruit Palestinian youth for positions in the Hamas da’wa, for terrorist training courses in Syria or Iran, or for suicide and other terror attacks,” Levitt notes. In essence, Hamas is training the next generation of Palestinians to gain support in its Islamist agenda.[15]

Hamas gained notoriety internationally in the early 1990s for its brutal militant operations that have killed hundreds of civilians. Hamas’s terrorist attacks are largely carried out by its armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, officially formed in 1991. The Brigades is named after Ezzedeen al-Qassam, an Islamist guerrilla and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who preached jihad against the British and the local Jewish population in mandatory Palestine. Al-Qassam fought in the Arab revolt of the early 1930s against both groups and was killed in 1935.

According to its site, the Brigades’ mission is: “To contribute in the effort of liberating Palestine and restoring the rights of the Palestinian people…” and the Brigades “works to: Evoke the spirit of Jihad (resistance) amongst Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims; Defend Palestinians and their land against the Zionist occupation and its aggression; Liberate Palestinians and the land usurped by the Zionist occupation forces and settlers.” It is important to note that although it carries a different name, thearmed wing of Hamas is part of the larger organization and falls under the jurisdiction of the group’s political leadership.

Since 1993, when Hamas carried out its first suicide bombing, the terrorist group is believed to have killed over 500 civilians, approximately 20 of which were American. Adding to its suicide bombings, the last of which took place in 2008, Hamas since 2001 has launched thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and cities, terrorizing the people and killing over 40. Upon Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections, the U.S. and other donors cut funding to the Palestinians on account of these attacks. Upon taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas accelerated its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians and army personnel and is responsible for over 3,000 rockets landing in Israel since then. Hamas has also recently been working toboost its following and military capabilities in the West Bank by fostering terrorist cells and planning attacks such as the suicide bombing thwarted by Israeli forces at the end of August 2011.

Hamas has consistently opposed the peace process, increasing attacks during the Oslo Accords and the first Palestinian elections, born from that peace agreement. Hamas was also reportedly highly restricted in Jordan in 1999 because of attempts to sabotage the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement. Even after signing a reconciliation agreement with Fatah in 2011, Hamas repeated its long-held position that it would not negotiate with Israel.

Because of its actions “including large-scale suicide bombings–against Israeli civilian and military targets, suspected Palestinian collaborators, and Fatah rivals,” Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization in the U.S., EU, and Canada.

Funding and Support

According to the Congressional Research Center, the Hamas-led regime in the Gaza Strip has an estimated annual budget of $320-$540 million. In fact, the official budget for fiscal year 2010 was $540 million,[16] for 2011 was $630 million, and in 2012 was approved at $869 million. Other than the estimated $170 million that the government brings in as revenue internally, Hamas collects money from external sources such as the Muslim Brotherhood International[17], private individuals and organizations particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and from its network of Islamic charities €”some of which operated, and may still operate, in North America and Europe.

For example, Texas’s Holy Land Foundation, created by the Muslim Brotherhood, was found to have funneled $12 million to Hamas between 1995 and 2001, when its assets were frozen. And more recently, in April 2011, it was discovered that approximately $15 million of charitable funds from Canada’s International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy (IFRAN) were sent to organizations with ties to Hamas between January 2005 and December 2009.

It is difficult to determine the extent to which Iran funds Hamas. Estimates range from $20-$30 million annually to $150-$200 million in 2008, with the latter amount including assistance from other Gulf States.[18] According to a Brookings report in 2011, since 2000 Hamas has received tens of millions of dollars each year from individual donors, and since taking over the Strip Iran has contributed roughly $15 million a month, or $180 million a year, to Hamas’s coffers.[19] In August 2011, however, reports surfaced claiming that Hamas’s refusal to support Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in his fight against protesters prompted Iran to stop funding Hamas. At this point, the extent of Iran’s funding of Hamas is unknown.

Hamas brings in tens of millions of dollars each year from taxing the goods that come through Gaza’s smuggling tunnel system, 90 percent of which the organization controls under its Tunnel Administration.[20] Most of the money, estimated in 2009 to be $150-$200 million, reportedly goes to the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades rather than the Gazan regime or government treasury. Hamas also brings in money from Gaza’s zakat committees, which collect obligatory Muslim donations, licensing fees, and taxes.

Apart from direct funding, Hamas receives assistance from friendly Middle Eastern countries in other ways. For Syria and Iran, supporting Hamas has included allowing the organization to operate from within its borders and providing Hamas members with military training. According to one Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades commander, “We have sent seven ‘courses’ of our fighters to Iran” to train for between 45 days and six months.[21] That same commander, however, said that Hamas sends more fighters to train in Syria to learn “high-tech capabilities, knowledge about land mines and rockets, sniping, and fighting tactics like the ones used by Hezbollah.”[22] In fact, the Syrian government has aided Hamas tremendously, as Syria served as the base for Hamas’s political bureau from 2001-2012 and allowed the organization to conduct various activities from within the country, such as train operatives, raise funds, and assist in purchasing arms and ammunition. Hezbollah in Lebanon has also admitted to “giving them [Hamas] every type of support that could help the Palestinian resistance. Every type that is possible.”

Finally, Palestinians also donate to Hamas and it is believed that Hamas has “tens of thousands of supporters and sympathizers.” And while the current number of Hamas members and supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is largely unknown, its Executive Force and the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades are believed to boast a combined membership of up to 20,000 men.

[1] Andrew McGregor, “‘Jihad and the Rifle Alone’: ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam and the Islamist Revolution,” The Journal of Conflict Studies (Fall 2003): 93.
[2] See Michael Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), Chapter 2.
[3] Yezid Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza: Three Years On,” Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief 41 (2010): 2.
[4] “Round Two in Gaza,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing 24 (2008): 8.
[5] “Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 73 (2008): 9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 13-15.
[8] Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza,” 2.
[9] “Round Two in Gaza,” 16-17 (footnote #179).
[10] Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza,” 2.
[11] “The Challenge of Gaza,” The Saban Center at Brookings, Analysis Paper 23 (2011): 12.
[12] Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza,” 11.
[13] Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine, 27.
[14] “Round Two in Gaza,” 11.
[15] “The Challenge of Gaza,” 11.
[16] Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza,” 5.
[17] Ibid.
[18] “Ruling Palestine I,” 18.
[19] “The Challenge of Gaza,” 20.
[20] “Round Two in Gaza,” 14.
[21] “The Challenge of Gaza,” 16.
[22] Ibid.

While Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, the area is also home to other Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is an Islamist nationalist organization created in the 1970s by Muslim Brotherhood members who oppose the existence of Israel. PIJ’s aim is to remove Israel from the Middle East through violent jihad and create “an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including present day Israel,” according to the U.S. State Department. Unlike Hamas, PIJ does not participate in the Palestinian political process or social services; in fact, it sees Hamas, which has lately taken to calling for “cease-fires” between Gaza and Israel, as too moderate. According to a PIJ spokesperson, the jihad will continue “as long as Israel continues its siege, assassination policy against Jihad and operations in the West Bank and Gaza, and refuses to recognize the right of every refugee to return to his home.”[1] PIJ is mostly funded by Iran and is also aided by Syria. It is also known to have received funding from at least one man in the United States, Sami al-Arian, a former university professor.

PIJ was founded by Fathi Shaqaqi and Abd al-Aziz Awda, and its official headquarters are in Damascus. With less than 1,000 members, PIJ is a small and secretive Palestinian resistance group. Its paramilitary wing, the al-Quds Brigades, has used Gaza over the years as a launching pad to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians with suicide bombs and rockets. The group’s most recent suicide bombing, which killed three people, was in January 2007. Since then, the group has launched countless indigenously produced rockets at Israel similar to Hamas’s Qassam.

PIJ is designated by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.


Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat in the 1950s, was the first nationalist group to control the Palestinian dialogue. The group was created with the goal of promoting armed struggle against Israel to destroy the country and create a Palestinian state on its ashes. While Fatah as part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officially recognized Israel and renounced terrorism in 1993, it remains connected to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades €”a militant offshoot formed at the time of the Second Intifada in 2000. The group, comprised of an unknown number of small cells with only a few hundred activists, desires to push the Israeli presence from the West Bank and Gaza and establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. While the Brigades uses Islamic imagery and rhetoric, it largely emerged as a secular counterweight to Hamas’s paramilitary wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades.

In January 2002, the group discharged the first female suicide bomber inside Israel and was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. shortly thereafter. Its attacks against Israeli citizens led the U.S. government to abandon efforts to deal with Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. The terrorist group was led by Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti, former leader of Fatah in the West Bank, until his arrest in 2002. Currently, the group is thought to lack a leadership structure, and according to the State Department, “Iran has exploited al-Aqsa’s lack of resources and formal leadership by providing funds and guidance, mostly through Hizballah facilitators.”

Following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the al-Aqsa Martyrs cells in Gaza increased their rocket attacks against Israel. According to the International Crisis Group, al-Aqsa may have done so as part of its strategy to undermine Hamas, as rockets provoke Israeli retaliation.[2] Like other groups in the area, however, al-Aqsa’s efforts to launch rockets diminished with the end of Operation Cast Lead and Hamas’s renewed efforts to enforce its unofficial cease-fire with Israel.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian nationalist Marxist group, was founded by George Habash after the Six Day War in 1967. With a current strength of approximately 800 members, the PFLP is best known for pioneering large-scale Palestinian terror attacks in the 1970s such as airline hijackings. The PFLP receives financial support, training, and safe haven from Syria.

The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the PFLP’s military arm, was formed in 2001 after its namesake, who had taken over for Habash, was assassinated by Israel. The Brigades, whose membership numbers are unknown, wishes to establish a Palestinian state on all of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. The group opposes negotiations and sees violent resistance as the only way to achieve its goal. As the Brigades’ spokesperson said in 2007, “past experiences have proven the failure of all the agreements and peaceful solutions.” The Brigades has carried out suicide attacks and rocket strikes from Gaza.

PFLP is designated by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Popular Resistance Committees

The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) was founded by Jamal Abu Samhadana, a former Fatah member, in southern Gaza at the end of 2000 with the aim of defending Palestinian refugee camps. However, the group soon moved towards launching offensive attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets in the Gaza Strip, and has since become one of the most well organized Palestinian terrorist operational groups.

The PRC’s ideology is similar to Hamas’s. Islam is viewed as a solution for the Palestinians’ problems and PRC leaders reject negotiations with Israel, viewing jihad as the only way to obtain their goal of liberating all of Palestine. This ideological symmetry with Hamas has resulted in the two operating in coordination against Israel from Gaza. According to the Israel-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hamas supports the PRC with funds, arms, and operational instructions so that their forces can carry out attacks against Israel while Hamas is ‘committed’ to a cease-fire. (Hamas employs other groups for the same purpose.) In 2007, the PRC was believed to have several hundred operatives.

Since its founding, the PRC has carried out hundreds of attacks against Israel using weapons ranging from machine guns to antitank rockets, grenades, mortars, and its home-made Nasser rocket.


Gaza is also home to numerous Salafi-jihadist groups that challenge Hamas’s rule. These groups, while not believed to have direct ties to al-Qaeda, are inspired by, and followers of, the terrorist group’s ideology. Some even claim affiliation.

Salafism is a Sunni Islamic ideology that believes the faith has become corrupted over the centuries and, as such, Salafis call for Muslims to return to an authentic version of Islam through strictly following the original texts and teachings of Islam’s pious ancestors, or salaf al-salih. Salafi-jihadists believe that waging jihad through acts of violence and terrorism is justified to realize their political objective of creating a transnational Islamic state, or caliphate.

For the most part, Gaza’s Salafi-jihadists are former disenchanted members of the military wings of Hamas, PIJ, PRC, and Fatah. The groups largely believe Hamas hasn’t done enough to Islamize the Gazan population and government with Sharia, Islamic law. Salafi-jihadists also differ from groups such as Hamas and PIJ for their global aspirations and rejection of state boundaries, and for advocating against entering cease-fires or “lulls” with Israel. Hamas, for its part, largely tries to contain these groups through violence and arrest when members, for instance, break the unofficial cease-fire with Israel more often than Hamas wants to allow.

Reliable numbers on the size of Gaza’s Salafi-jihadist population are difficult to obtain, and estimates range from dozens to thousands. There are also differing reports on whether or not specific groups even still exist or have simply transformed into new groups with new names. Even so, a handful of groups stand out:

Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), led by powerful clan leader Mumtaz Dughmush, was established by splinter groups from the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees and Hamas around the end of 2005. The group is best known for aiding Hamas in capturing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. In 2008, clashes broke out between Jaish al-Islam and Hamas after the group asserted its independence and opposed Hamas’s arrest of a member of the Dughmush clan. While somewhat inactive in Gaza since then, there is reason to believe that the group is active in Egypt. In January 2011, former Egyptian interior minister Habib Al-‘Adli accused Jaish al-Islam of being behind the bombing that month at a Coptic church in Alexandria.

In May 2011, Jaish al-Islam was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.

Fatah al-Islam (Conquest of Islam) was founded in November 2006 as an offshoot of Fatah al-Intifada, a Palestinian group backed by Syria and operating in Lebanon. Today, Fatah al-Islam operates in Gaza and Lebanon. The group is led by Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian militant thought to have links to the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Followers of God) was established in November 2008 in the Gaza Strip with the purpose of “‘fight[ing] a jihad for his [Allah’s] sake’ until the ‘banner of unity is hoisted’ and the Prophet Muhammad ‘is made victorious,'” according to its website. The group criticized Hamas for failing to fully impose Sharia in Gaza. The group’s leader, Abdul-Latif Moussa, declared Gaza an “Islamic emirate” in 2009, prompting Hamas forces to attack and kill Moussa and over 20 others.Jund Ansar Allah essentially died with its leader, although members are said to have a military base in a former Israeli settlement in Gaza from which they carry out rocket attacks.

Jaish al-Ummah (Army of the Nation) is controlled by leader Ismail Hammed. While the movement was founded over 20 years ago, it “began operating publicly in an organized manner” in 2004, according to spokesperson Abu Abdullah al-Ghazi. The group, which launches an occasional rocket into Israel, believes “Muslims all over the world are obliged to fight the Israelis and the infidels until only Islam rules the earth.” During Operation Cast Lead, Jaish al-Ummah claimed responsibility for firing mortar shells at Israeli tanks and shooting an Israeli soldier.

Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) is one of the smaller Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza, and yet, it is supposedly regarded by Hamas as one of Gaza’s most dangerous. Its leader, Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi, is said to despise Hamas more than the other radical Islamists in the Strip. In March 2011, Hamas arrested al-Maqdisi, which prompted members of the group toabduct and kill Italian human rights activist Vittorio Arrigoni in April. Tawhid wa al-Jihad is the only Salafi-jihadist group in the region thought to have killed an Israeli soldier.

[1] “Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 73 (2008): 24.
[2] “Ruling Palestine I,” 23.