Is Hamas a Terrorist Organization?

Pro-Palestine demonstrators take place in a rally calling for peace and the end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Oct. 13, 2023, Times Square, New York Photo by on Unsplash
Pro-Palestine demonstrators take place in a rally calling for peace and the end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Oct. 13, 2023, Times Square, New York Photo by on Unsplash

by Ben Lipman

Terrorism is a term laden with political and moral implications, and is often used to describe acts of violence made by non-state actors to achieve ideological goals. Hamas, a political group at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a prime example of the complexities surrounding the designation of terrorist organizations. In this article, I will delve into the complicated nature of Hamas, shedding light on the intricacies of its role in the struggle for Palestinian self determination and its status as a terrorist group. 

Terrorism is a form of political violence that aims to achieve ideological goals (political, religious, etc) by intimidating populations and governments. However, its official definition remains somewhat elusive, and is often heavily influenced by political agendas. While there is a general consensus that terrorist groups are those that employ brutal and often indiscriminate violence against civilian targets, the application of this label is subjective, and often context-dependent. While many groups meet these qualifications while escaping the terrorist label, there are others who employ the same tactics while not being similarly labeled. 

Hamas, a political and military organization founded in the late 1980s, exemplifies this contradiction.  From the perspective of the United States government and Israel, it is a terrorist organization, having been added to the United States State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997.   Based on Hamas’s use of violence against civilian populations, it is called terroristic. Moreover, Hamas’s original covenant contains antisemetic language, and calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, quoting “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him… The Movement adds its efforts to the efforts of all those who are active in the Palestinian arena. Arab and Islamic Peoples should augment by further steps on their part; Islamic groupings all over the Arab world should also do the same, since all of these are the best-equipped for the future role in the fight with the warmongering Jews.”

This has further marked Hamas as a terrorist organization in the eyes of much of the Western world.

Hamas released a new charter in 2017 titled A Document of General Principles and Policies. This new charter accepts the formation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, without recognising the statehood of Israel, and says that the conflict in Palestine is not a religious one.” While the new document clarifies that Hamas’ grievance is with Zionists, not Jews, it did not condemn the views of the previous document. Khaled Meshaal, former head of Hamas stated in the document’s release conference that “We shall not waive an inch of the Palestinian home soil, no matter what the recent pressures are and no matter how long the occupation.”

But supporters of Hamas, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, perpetuate a very different account. Hamas is viewed not as a terrorist organization, but as a legitimate resistance movement engaged in a struggle for liberty and self-determination. They argue that Hamas’s actions are a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation and brutalization of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, Hamas’s provision of social services, including healthcare, education, and food rations to Palestinians in the Gaza strip bolster its status as a legitimate political entity working for the wellbeing of its people.

This dichotomy between terrorism and liberation/resistance, embodied by Hamas, is defined by different interpretations of its objectives and actions. While its tactics certainly are consistent with our traditional notions of terrorism, the root causes of its formation and continued operations cannot be ignored. Hamas’s motivations and actions are deeply intertwined with the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict characterized by decades of displacement, dehumanization, and occupation. Understanding the motivations and intricacies of Hamas requires an in-depth examination of the socio-political landscape of its birth. The failure of diplomatic efforts in advancing the Palestinian cause, coupled with the violence of the Israeli military occupation and continual expansion of Israeli settlements into the rapidly shrinking Palestinian territories, created fertile soil for the seeds of militarized resistance movements such as Hamas. Furthermore, the continued economic hardships endured by the Palestinian population, particularly in the Gaza Strip which was under siege since 2007, give rise to more resentment, further strengthening the resistance cause among the general population. Critics of Hamas argue that Hamas’s tactics, including the use of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, undermine its declared status as a resistance movement, and that these acts targeting non-combatants violate international human rights. Despite this, supporters of Hamas continue to argue that the group’s actions are a legitimate response to Israeli aggression and subsequent occupation of Palestinian land. They, on the other hand, cite Israel’s history of using disproportionate force and collective punishment against the Palestinian people, as well as the current military blockade around the Gaza strip. In this paradigm, Hamas’s militarized resistance is seen as necessary for defending the Palestinian people against oppression.

Navigating the complexities of the designation ‘terrorist’ and Hamas’s relationship with such necessitates a nuanced understanding of the social, historical, and political contexts surrounding it. While the tactics used by this group may be condemned as acts of terrorism by many in the West, many others, especially within the region, see it as a legitimate political resistance. The root causes responsible for its emerging and continued operation strengthen the need for an inclusive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas perfectly exemplifies the relationship between terrorism and resistance. A group is defined by its actions, and no one can deny that Hamas has repeatedly used tactics that fall into the categorization of ‘terrorist activity’, yet its status as a legitimate political entity depends on one’s perspective and political motivations. Recognizing the complexity of Hamas’s role in the conflict is necessary for understanding its underlying drivers and beginning to work towards a sustainable peace.

— Ben Lipman is an undergraduate at Stonehill College and a Legislative/Political Intern at MAPA