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What is Hamas? A closer look at the group behind deadly attack on Israel

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Israel-Hamas crisis: Looming presence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group
WATCH: Israel-Hamas crisis: Looming presence of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group – Oct 17, 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush and destroy” the militant group Hamas in response to its surprise weekend attack that has shaken the Middle East and the world.

Netanyahu said every Hamas member is a “dead man,” as Israeli troops mass near the Gaza border while airstrikes rain down on the region. Roughly 2,800 peopled have died on both sides of the conflict so far.

But what is Hamas? Here is everything you need to know.

What is Hamas?

Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

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It was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian cleric.

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According to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s counter-terrorism guide, Hamas has roots in “the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which was established in Egypt in the 1920s.

It is one of a broad group of actors in the region including Iran, Syria and the Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which broadly oppose U.S. policy in the Middle East and Israel.

In 1988, Hamas published its charter, calling for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic society for Palestinians, the Council on Foreign Relations states on its website.

Hamas presented a new document in 2017 that suggested it would accept an interim Palestinian state along the “Green Line” border established before the 1967 Six-Day War, but refused to recognize Israel.

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Hamas has a militant wing, which has sent gunmen and suicide bombers into Israel. Hamas calls its armed activities resistance against Israeli occupation.

Hamas won 2006 legislative elections and in 2007, violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, the Associated Press reported. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by the rival Fatah movement, administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Hamas a listed terrorist entity

Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Egypt and Japan.

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It was listed as a terrorist entity by Ottawa in 2022.

In its listing, Canada describes Hamas as a “radical Islamist-nationalist terrorist organization.”

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Israel-Hamas crisis: Muslim, Jewish communities across Canada on edge

“It uses political and violent means to pursue its goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in Israel,” Ottawa says. “Since 1990, Hamas has been responsible for terrorist attacks against both civilian and military targets.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against Hamas on Monday following pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Canada over the long weekend. Those demonstrations raised concerns from premiers, mayors and law enforcement about how to handle any show of support for Hamas.

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“Let me be very clear. Hamas terrorists aren’t a resistance. They’re not freedom fighters,” Trudeau said at an Israeli solidarity rally in Ottawa. “They are terrorists, and no one in Canada should be supporting them, much less celebrating them.”

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Why attack Israel in this way?

According to the Associated Press, Israel has made peace deals with Arab nations in recent years without having to make concessions in its conflict with the Palestinians. The U.S. has also been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a bitter rival of Hamas’ Iranian backers.

Meanwhile, Israel’s new far-right government was working to cement Israeli settlements in the West Bank despite Palestinian opposition.

Click to play video: 'Death toll surpasses 2500 in Israel-Hamas conflict'
Death toll surpasses 2500 in Israel-Hamas conflict

Hamas leaders have said an Israeli crackdown on militants in the West Bank, continued construction of settlements, which the UN and many international nations consider illegal, thousands of prisoners in Israeli jails, and its ongoing blockade of Gaza, pushed it to attack.

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Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor for Israel, told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday he believes Hamas was taking advantage of the domestic turmoil in Israel over Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms.

“The so-called judicial reform, I call the judicial wrecking ball, which tore Israeli society apart (and) which clearly weakened the IDF (Israel Defence Forces),” he said.

“We’re seeing it now and they (Hamas) believe that this was a unique timing from their perspective, that there would never be a better time to attack Israel. They were proved right.”

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Israel was caught off guard by the weekend attack that saw scores of civilians – including women and children – killed by Hamas. The group also took hostages from Israel.

Hamas leaders said hundreds of its 40,000 fighters took part in the assault. Israel has said the group has about 30,000 fighters and an arsenal of rockets, including some with a range of about 250 kilometres, and unmanned drones.

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Hamas’ approach is a “complete strategic rupture,” said Hugh Lovatt, a Mideast expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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“It is unclear what Hamas’ endgame is beyond either fighting to the death or liberating Palestine,” he told The Associated Press Thursday.

“Despite conducting attacks against civilians in the past and fighting previous wars against Israel, (Hamas) simultaneously engaged in political tracks,” Lovatt said.

“Now it appears to have fully embraced open-ended violence as its long-term strategic choice.”

What’s happening now?

On Friday, Israel called for all civilians in the northern half of Gaza, which is more than one million people, to relocate south within 24 hours.

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Tel Aviv has amassed tanks for an expected ground offensive. Hamas has told residents to stay put, calling Israeli orders to move “psychological warfare.”

By Friday afternoon in Israel, there was no sign of any mass exodus as Tel Aviv prepared its onslaught.

A ground offensive into the narrow and densely populated Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million people, poses serious risk, with Hamas threatening to kill its hostages.

— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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