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Threat Primer: Hamas

The Palestinian political and militant group Hamas re-entered the international spotlight in early October 2023 when the group launched a large-scale attack into Israel from the Gaza Strip (a Palestinian territory that shares a border with Israel). This paper is not intended to address the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, rather, it is designed to provide historical context regarding Hamas and its activities. In this paper, RMC’s Intelligence & Analysis Division will examine Hamas’ origins, ideology, leadership, funding, organization, and strength (in terms of manpower). Additionally, this paper will provide an overview of Hamas’ political and militant activities, and briefly review some of the group’s notable attacks.

In December 1987, Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founded Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (commonly known by its acronym “Hamas” or the all-capitalized “HAMAS”) as the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Gaza. Initially, Hamas was established as an alternative to Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group whose violent resistance of Israel threatened to drive Palestinian support away from the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the first intifada (a Palestinian uprising against Israeli possession of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) Hamas emerged as the primary domestic opposition force to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his secular nationalist Fatah movement. Hamas differentiated itself from Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who were negotiating with Israel in the early 1990s, by using violence against Israeli civilian and military targets to disrupt peace talks. Following efforts to bolster its violent resistance, including engaging in suicide bombings beginning in April 1993, the United States designated the Sunni extremist movement as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.1,2,3,4

Since Hamas’ founding, the group has preserved its primary base of political support and its military command in the Gaza Strip. Following Arafat’s death in 2004, Hamas began engaging in politics. Shortly after the election of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority (PA) president and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections over Fatah in 2006. Following the victory, Hamas acquired control of PA ministries in Gaza and violently expelled the PA and Fatah from Gaza in 2007.1,4,5

The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, a document signed in August 1988, details Hamas’ ideology and goals. According to the covenant’s introduction, Hamas’ ideology is rooted in fundamental Islamic principles, as the group looks to fulfill its responsibilities by “striving for the sake of its Creator.” Hamas’ primary goal in its “struggle against the Jews” is to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine” through an allegiance to Islam and support from the Arab and Islamic world. Furthermore, Article Eleven of the covenant specifies that the land of Palestine would be governed under Islamic Sharia (law) and preserved for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. Therefore, Hamas strongly opposes the idea of a secular Palestine and believes that no part of the land can be given up.6

Hamas believes that Palestinian liberation cannot be achieved through peaceful initiatives and international conferences, as they directly contradict Hamas’ principles and are a “waste of time.” Therefore, peace agreements between Arab countries and Israel are viewed as “treacherous.” Lastly, while Hamas states in its covenant that all religions can safely coexist under Islamic rule, Article 28 declares that “Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people.”6

In an effort to soften its image and better connect with the outside world, Hamas released a new document of principles and policies in May 2017. While Hamas’ maintained its goal to completely liberate the land “from the river to the sea” (referring to the entirety of the land that comprises Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank), the new document did not mention the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to distinguish between Jewish people and Zionism, and accepted the provisional establishment of a Palestinian state “with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967.” However, Hamas advocated that “resistance and jihad” continued to remain a right and did not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist in any part of the land.7,8,9

Hamas’ leadership is comprised of officials operating in exile, such as Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Doha, Qatar, and Cairo, Egypt, and individuals managing the affairs in Gaza and the West Bank. The current political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, has been the group’s leader since 2017. Haniyeh has served from Doha, Qatar, since 2020, as Egypt reportedly prevents his movement into and out of Gaza. Open-source reports also note that some Hamas officials operate in Qatar and Turkey. Other leaders include military wing leaders Marwan Issa and Mohammed Deif, Lebanon branch head Saleh al-Arouri, and Political Bureau External Region chief Khaled Mashal. In Gaza, Yahya Sinwar manages day-to-day affairs as the Political Bureau chief, while Issam al-Da’alis serves as de facto prime minister.2,3

Hamas is restricted from receiving funds that the U.S. and European Union provide to the PLO in the West Bank. As a result, the group’s financing is reportedly driven by Palestinian expatriates and private donors in the Persian Gulf, Islamic charities that channel funds to Hamas-backed social service groups, and a few foreign nations. Furthermore, after Egypt and Israel initiated a blockade of Gaza in the 2000s, Hamas started taxing goods transported through tunnels from the Egyptian crossing into Gaza. While most tunnels were shut down on Egypt’s territory when Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took power in 2013, Egypt started permitting the importation of some commercial goods into Gaza in 2018. Lastly, Hamas has increasingly used cryptocurrencies, credit cards, or contrived trade deals to fund their operations. Between December 2021 and April 2023, Israel seized about 190 cryptocurrency accounts that it indicated were associated with Hamas.2,5,10

According to open-source reporting, Hamas has historically received significant funds, weapons, and training from Iran. While the Hamas-Iran relationship suffered after Hamas refused to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, their alliance was reportedly revived around 2017. Per the U.S. Department of State, as of February 2023, Iran contributes up to $100 million annually in combined support to groups such as Hamas, PIJ, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. In addition to Iran, Hamas has the political support of Turkey. Turkish President Erdogan has permitted Hamas’ leadership to live in Turkey, has met with Hamas officials, and refused to describe the group’s actions as terrorism. Despite Turkey’s claim that their support remains political in nature, some have accused the country of funding Hamas’ actions, including through aid diverted from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. Qatar has also been accused of financing Hamas, with a U.S. Treasury Department official stating publicly in 2014 that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas.” While Qatar has provided fuel and cash to address electricity and funding shortages in Gaza, Qatari officials have denied directly financing Hamas.11,2,4,5,12

Organization and Strength
Although the group is largely known for its militant activities, Hamas also has a variety of sociopolitical functions. Hamas governs more than 2,000,000 people in Gaza, administering various public services to include healthcare, schooling, and food banks. The general policy of Hamas is set by the group’s aforementioned Political Bureau, which is comprised of 15 members and is led by Ismail Haniyeh. The Political Bureau is elected by the Shura Council, an overarching, consultative body. The exact number of members on the Shura Council is unknown, but it is comprised of members from four (4) regional shuras. The Shura Council is elected by Hamas members and prisoners in Israeli jails. Of note, Osama Mazini, the head of the Shura Council was killed in October 2023 in the Gaza Strip during the ongoing conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas13,14,15

The armed wing of Hamas, named Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (known as the al-Qassam Brigades for short), has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters and has existed since 1991. As of September 2022, the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center estimated Hamas had a strength of 20,000 to 25,000 members.3,16,17,18

Political Activities
Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, narrowly defeating rival political party Fatah (a more moderate/secular western-backed political party. This was the first time Hamas participated in elections and was also the last time that the elections were held. Hamas took over the Gaza strip the following year after Fatah forces. Hamas fighters successfully pushed out all Fatah politicians from Gaza which allowed them to prevent further political elections from occurring. The fighting between Hamas and Fatah’s militia lasted for a week, resulting in a split of the Palestinian territories. With Hamas’ new reign came new restrictive laws. Initially, they governed in accordance with the sharia-based Palestinian Basic Law. Furthermore, Hamas has made the law much more restrictive by enforcing gender segregation and putting restrictions on the way women were allowed to dress in its initial years of rule.19,20

Open-source reporting shows that the Hamas group lacked structure in its government in relation to transparency for its procurement, funding, and operations. According to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June 2023, one-third of Palestinians in Gaza believe that the Hamas government has been one of the most damaging organizations developed since 1984. Additionally, it was also found that while one-third would choose the PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a presidential election, more than half would vote for Hamas’ Haniyeh over Abbas.13

Militant Activities
The U.S. State Department designated Hamas (and by association, its al-Qassam Brigades) as a foreign terrorist organization in October 1997. The al-Qassam Brigades mainly participated in suicide bombing campaigns when it was first created. In recent years, Hamas has demonstrated uses of rockets, long-range missiles, and drones. The advancement of their military capabilities has influenced the damage they have been able to inflict on their targets. Prior to the recent advancement of their military capabilities, they heavily relied on guerrilla warfare tactics. Rockets, explosives, snipers, and even underground tunnels were also used to carry out attacks.3,16

Open-source reporting indicates that Hamas still maintains and utilizes its extensive underground tunnel system in Gaza to this day. Hamas uses these tunnels to store their arsenal of launch platforms, rockets, weapons, and other supplies. The tunnels are also used to house and transport Hamas militants, giving the group the capability to operate “under the radar” in the event of a major ground attack.16

Notable Attacks
In recent years, Hamas has had a demonstrated history of surprise attacks on Israel. In December 2008, Hamas fired rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. In July 2014, Hamas kidnapped and killed three (3) Israeli teenagers. In May 2021, Israel launched air raids on Gaza in retaliation to what it said were rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas. Hamas had fired rockets towards Israel after Israel refused to withdraw their security forces from the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem. At the compound, security forces demonstrated acts of violence against Palestinian protestors leading to Hamas giving an ultimatum. Consequently, Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets which led to an 11-day war with Israel.21,22,23

The University of Maryland’s Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) tracks and categorizes terrorist attacks worldwide. For the 10-year period from 2011, the START GTD reported 218 terrorist attacks associated with Hamas and the al-Qassam Brigades, for an average of 10.9 attacks annually.24

An understanding of Hamas, its origins, its structure, its capabilities, and its historical activities are fundamental to understanding the ongoing conflict between the political-militant group and Israeli forces in and around Gaza. RMC’s Intelligence & Analysis Division continues to monitor the ongoing conflict and relevant geopolitical developments. Additionally, the Intelligence & Analysis Division continues to analyze potential threats to the U.S. and its interests as a result of the conflict, to include Iran-backed militia attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East, as well as potential terrorism, hate crime, and protest activity/civil disturbance concerns in the U.S. homeland. Finally, the Intelligence & Analysis Division acknowledges the potential for Iranian involvement to escalate the current situation into a wider conflict.

RMC’s Intelligence and Analysis Division also plans to release a companion Threat Primer White Paper focused on the Iran-backed militant group Hizballah in next month’s edition of the White Paper Series (dated January 2024). Additional White Papers regarding the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and associated developments may be produced as the situation continues to unfold.


1. Zanotti, J. (2010, December 02). Hamas: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from

2. Robinson, K. (2023, October 31). What Is Hamas? Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

3. National Counterterrorism Center. (2022, September). Hamas. Retrieved from

4. Congressional Research Service. (2021, March 18). The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations. Retrieved from

5. U.S. State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism. (2023, February). Country Reports on Terrorism 2021. Retrieved from

6. Hamas. (1988, August 18). The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement. The Avalon Project. Retrieved from

7. Hamas. (2017, May). A Document of General Principles & Policies. Retrieved from

8. BBC. (2017, May 01). New Hamas policy document ‘aims to soften image’. Retrieved from

9. Wilson Center. (2023, October 20). Doctrine of Hamas. Retrieved from

10. Sayegh, H. A., O’Donnell, J., & Howcroft, E. (2023, October 16). Who funds Hamas? A global network of crypto, cash and charities. Reuters. Retrieved from

11. al-Mughrabi, N. (2017, August 28). After Syria fall-out, Hamas ties with Iran restored: Hamas chief. Reuters. Retrieved from

12. Barkey, H.J. (2023, October 25). Turkey, the United States, and the Israel-Hamas War. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

13. Murphy, K. (2019, March 03). Hamas victory is built on social work. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

14. Robinson, K. (2023, October 10). What is Hamas? What to know about its origins, leaders and funding. PBS. Retrieved from

15. Mapping Palestinian Politics. (n.d). Shura Council. European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

16. Axios. (2023, October 21). What to know about Hamas’ military capabilities. Retrieved from

17. Marcus, J. (2021, May 12). Israel-Gaza Violence: The Strtength and Limitations of Hamas’ Arsenal. BBC. Retrieved from

18. ITV. (2023, October 13). How Do the Israeli Military and Hamas Compare in Size and Strength?. Retrieved from

19. Salam, Y. (2023, October 09). What is Hamas?. NBC News. Retrieved from

20. Reuters. (2023, November 06). What is the Palestinian group Hamas?. Retrieved from

21. Hutchinson, B. (2023, November 07). Israel-Hamas conflict: Timeline and key developments in month of war. ABC News. Retrieved from

22. Wilson, R., de Acosta, R., Leeds Matthews, A., & Newman, A. (2023, November 07). These charts show the scale of loss in the Israel-Hamas war. CNN. Retrieved from

23. Al Jazeera. (2021, July 27). HRW accuses, Palestinians of ‘apparent war crimes’ in Gaza. Retrieved from

24. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (n.d.). Global Terrorism Database. Retrieved from 

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