What is Hamas and why is it fighting with Israel in Gaza?


A woman holding a child pictured after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 23 NovemberImage source, Getty Images

Hamas gunmen launched an unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

The Israeli military responded with air strikes on Gaza, and launched a ground offensive. More than 17,100 people people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run government.

Fighting has resumed after a seven-day temporary truce, during which Hamas released more than 100 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians who were held in Israeli jails.

What is the goal of Israel’s military operation in Gaza?

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) warplanes have been carrying out strikes across Gaza while its troops move through the territory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has a “clear goal of destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities”, as well as freeing the hostages.

He also declared that Israel would have “overall security responsibility” for the Gaza Strip “for an indefinite period” after the conflict. Israel later said it has no plans to reoccupy the territory.

Israel has drafted 300,000 reservists for the operation, to boost its standing force of 160,000.

What is happening on the ground in Gaza?

The IDF says it has struck thousands of targets belonging to Hamas – which Israel, the UK, US and other Western powers class as a terrorist organisation.

It also says it has destroyed hundreds of tunnel shafts built underneath Gaza. Hamas has claimed that its tunnel network stretches for 500km (310 miles).

A number of hospitals in the north were caught up in intense fighting.

Since the temporary ceasefire ended, Israeli troops have pushed into southern Gaza, and have taken “aggressive” action against Hamas and other armed groups in and around the city of Khan Younis.

There has also been sustained fighting in the north, around the Jabalia refugee camp and Shejaiya. Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in these areas.

Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters during the war, including many commanders.

The IDF says 411 of its soldiers have been killed since 7 October, the vast majority in the attacks that day by Hamas.

Who are the hostages and how many have been freed?

During the 7 October attacks, Hamas took about 240 hostages – who, it said, were hidden in “safe places and tunnels” within Gaza.

Israel said more than 30 of the hostages were children, and that at least 10 were aged over 60. It also said about half of the hostages had foreign passports from 25 different countries.

Under a deal brokered by Qatar, a pause in the fighting began on 24 November.

Image source, ATEF SAFADI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Image caption,

Large crowds have been gathering in the occupied West Bank to greet Palestinians released from Israeli jails

During the seven-day truce, which ended on 1 December, 105 hostages were freed, in return for 240 Palestinians who had been held in Israeli jails.

  • 78 Israeli women and children
  • 23 Thai hostages and one Filipino
  • 3 Russian-Israelis

Israel says 138 people are still in captivity, but “there is no possibility right now of bringing everyone home,” according to Mr Netanyahu.

Hamas has said other armed groups in Gaza are holding hostages, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which could complicate any future releases.

What is the humanitarian situation in Gaza?

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has urged the UN Security Council to push for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, warning that the humanitarian system may collapse, and public order could completely break down.

More than 36,000 have been injured since the start of the war, according to the Hamas-run government. It says three quarters of the wounded are children and women.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there was a “gap” between Israel’s intent to protect civilians and how the war has been unfolding in Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu has admitted that Israel has been “not successful” in minimising civilian casualties, but insisted this is because Hamas uses Gaza’s population as human shields.

Few of Gaza’s hospitals are still operational due to damage caused by attacks and the lack of electricity and fuel.

Some 800,000 residents in northern Gaza are without any access to health services, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Without fuel, water pumps and desalination plants, waste and sanitation services, and bakeries have been unable to function.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Food supplies are scarce, and there is overwhelming demand for the limited amount of flour distributed by the UN

Food has become scarce in Gaza and prices have soared, meaning many people are unable to afford staples such as flour.

This includes the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the fighting in the north after an Israeli ultimatum to move south of a river known as Wadi Gaza for their own safety.

Unrwa said the 600,000 people in southern Gaza have been ordered to leave their neighbourhoods because of the fighting there. Tens of thousands of people have fled to Rafah, near the border with Egypt.

Israel’s military published an online map with Gaza split into more than 600 blocks, showing areas where people should evacuate for their own safety.

But the BBC’s international editor Jeremy Bowen said the map is complicated, contains conflicting information, and requires a smartphone for access.

Unicef, the UN charity for children, warned that some of the “safe” zones are “tiny patches of barren land” with no water, sanitation or shelter.

Is humanitarian aid getting into Gaza?

After the 7 October attack, Israel shut its border crossings with Gaza, preventing the usual supplies of food, water, fuel and medicine from entering the territory.

Israel obstructed all fuel deliveries until late November, arguing it could be stolen by Hamas and used for military purposes.

Almost 1,400 lorry loads of humanitarian supplies entered Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah border crossing between 21 October and 21 November, compared with a monthly average of 10,000 before the war.

During the seven-day pause in fighting, hundreds of lorries carrying aid and fuel crossed at Rafah, which is the only functioning passage in and out of Gaza. But it has been very difficult to get goods into the north.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said it managed to help about 250,000 people during the truce, but the resumption of fighting had made the distribution of aid “almost impossible”.

According to Unrwa, humanitarian assistance has been “reduced virtually to nothing”, raising fears of widespread hunger and disease amongst the population.

However, Israel has agreed to open the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza within the next few days, to screen and inspect humanitarian aid delivered through the nearby Rafah crossing, between Gaza and Egypt.

It did this at the insistence of the US, and it could mean more aid enters Gaza.

Hundreds of foreign passport holders – including some British and US citizens – and seriously wounded and sick Palestinians have also been allowed to leave, but many remain. The Rafah crossing remains tightly controlled by Egypt.

What happened during the Hamas 7 October attack on Israel?

On 7 October, hundreds of Hamas gunmen crossed from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, breaking through the heavily guarded perimeter fence, landing by sea, and using paragliders.

The gunmen killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, in a series of raids on military posts, kibbutzim and a music festival, and took hostages back into Gaza.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

A young women kneels at a vigil for the hostages in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv

The attack came at a time of soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions: 2023 has been the deadliest on record for Palestinians who live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

What is Hamas and what does it want?

Hamas is a Palestinian group which has run Gaza since 2007.

The name is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, which means Islamic Resistance Movement.

The group wants to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas’s political wing in Gaza, pictured in 2021

Its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, is thought to have about 30,000 members.

Hamas has fought several wars with Israel since it took power, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and carrying out other deadly attacks.

In response, Israel has repeatedly attacked Hamas with air strikes, sending in troops in 2008 and 2014.

Hamas – or in some cases the al-Qassam Brigades – has been designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the EU and the UK, as well as other powers.

Iran backs the group, providing funding, weapons and training.

Where is the Gaza Strip and how big is it?

The Gaza Strip is a 41km (25-mile) long and 10km-wide territory located between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel withdrew its troops and around 7,000 settlers from the territory in 2005.

Home to2.2 million people, the narrow strip is one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.

Just over three-quarters of Gaza’s population – some 1.7 million people – are registered refugees or descendants of refugees, according to the UN.

Before the latest conflict, more than 500,000 people lived in eight refugee camps located across the Strip.

Israel controls the air space over Gaza and its shoreline, and strictly limits the movement of people and goods.

What is Palestine?

The West Bank and Gaza are known as the Palestinian territories. Along with East Jerusalem and Israel, they formed part of a land known as Palestine from Roman times until the mid-20th Century.

In 1948, part of Palestine became Israel, which was recognised by the United Nations the following year. The West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza are recognised as Palestine by many countries and bodies, although it does not have member status at the UN.

Those who do not recognise Israel’s right to exist also still refer to all of the land as Palestine.

He has been the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since 2005, and represents the Fatah political party – a bitter rival of Hamas.



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