Q&A: Hamas and Fatah

Hamas symbol

The official Hamas emblem shows two crossed swords in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque is framed by two Palestinian flags with the phrases, in Arabic, "God is Great" and "Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." hide caption

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Fatah symbol

The official Fatah emblem depicts two fists holding rifles, with a hand grenade in between. In the background is a map of Israel and the occupied territories. hide caption

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Hamas and Fatah are rival Palestinian factions that have attacked Israel in the past. Here's a look at the two organizations:

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an Islamist group, has pursued a policy of "armed resistance" against Israel — carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians — while also extending social-welfare programs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Hamas' official name is Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).

What is Fatah?

Fatah was the first exile group to launch attacks against Israel. Fatah's official name is Harakat al Tahrir al Falastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Fatah is the dominant member of the greater Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

What are the origins of these groups?

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom have since been killed by Israel.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization with branches throughout the Arab world. In 1988, Hamas wrote its charter, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and swears to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." The charter is still in effect today.

However, Hamas member Ismail Haniya — named prime minister under the unity government — has spoken of a possible long-term truce with Israel, if Israel withdraws from territory occupied after the 1967 war.

Fatah was founded by the late Yasser Arafat and a small group of Palestinian nationalists in the late 1950s. The group is a member of the PLO, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations founded in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

Fatah quickly became the most powerful member of the PLO, which Arafat also led.

What does the PLO think of Israel?

In 1993 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In exchange, PLO leaders were allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and recognized as the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. They were also allowed to set up Palestinian security forces. Although the PLO has officially renounced terrorism, some of its member organizations have been accused of or have claimed responsibility for continued attacks.

The PLO was initially based largely in Jordan. But after fighting between PLO guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970, a conflict known as Black September, the PLO was forced out of Jordan. Most of the guerrillas — and Yasser Arafat — settled in Lebanon. The PLO then launched frequent attacks on Israel from their Lebanese bases, prompting two Israeli invasions of Lebanon — in 1978 and 1982.

What approach does Hamas take toward Israel?

Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Its armed resistance has been carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian buses, nightclubs and other venues. As a result the United States, Israel and the European Union have labeled it a "terrorist organization." Human Rights Watch has also criticized Hamas for its attacks on civilians.

Hamas' main claim for support among Palestinians comes from its provision of social welfare services that neither the Israelis nor Fatah provide. From its inception, Hamas has funded and developed an elaborate network of schools, orphanages, health clinics and other social services that have given it reach into every sector of its populations.

How is Fatah viewed as compared to Hamas?

Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group's constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah's leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians, which is the major reason for its loss of seats in the government in the 2006 election.

How have Hamas and Fatah fared politically?

In January 2006, Palestinian voters in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted for a new Palestinian legislature. Hamas won a major victory, taking 74 of the 132 seats, in an election deemed fair and honest by international observers. Its rival, the once-dominant Fatah party, criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, took only 45 seats.

Fatah still controls the presidency, the highest elected position in the government. Mahmoud Abbas has held the position since January 2005. Fatah also controls roughly 70,000 police and security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These forces regularly clash with Hamas loyalists.

The surprise political victory in 2006 gave Hamas control of the Palestinian government. It also created a conflict with Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and says it will not honor pre-existing treaties signed by the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, Israel, with the support of the United States and the European Union, launched a financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Israel refused to pay the Palestinian Authority its monthly trade taxes, which Israel collects, and Washington has sought to freeze all bank transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The results deprived the authority's 150,000 civil servants of salaries for a time, but aid has continued to flow from the European Union and the United States via a specially devised "mechanism" that bypasses the Palestinian government.

How have recent events impacted the relationship between Hamas and Fatah?

In June, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip, destroying the headquarters of President Abbas as well as other government buildings. As a result of the violence, Abbas dissolved the unity government, a power-sharing deal between the two groups that was signed on Feb. 9, 2007, and swore in an emergency government. He forced out the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who is a member of Hamas. Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to the post.

Hamas leaders have condemned the move, making a decision not to recognize the changes, and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh has claimed that he continues to hold the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel have spoken out in support of Abbas and his new government — and plan to restore aid to the Palestinian people.

Who are the key Fatah leaders?

Mohammed Dahlan

Mohammed Dahlan: Dahlan is one of the most powerful Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip. Born in 1961 in a Palestinian refugee camp, Dahlan served several prison terms in Israel for terrorist activities. He is believed to have been one of the leaders of the 1987 intifada.

Dahlan was a member of the Palestinian delegation that negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 with Israel. The accords set up the Palestinian Authority, which granted Palestinian governance of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. It also allowed the creation of Palestinian security forces. Dahlan served as the first head of security forces in Gaza.

Dahlan says he was jailed 10 times by Israel between 1981 and 1986. During his incarcerations, he learned to speak fluent Hebrew.

Marwan Barghouti

Marwan Barghouti: Barghouti is Fatah's most popular leader in the West Bank. Born in Ramallah in the late 1950s, Barghouti became active in Fatah at the age of 15. By age 18, he had spent time in an Israeli prison.

Barghouti was one of the major leaders of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. He was subsequently arrested and deported, but he was allowed to return in 1994. Soon after, Barghouti was elected to the Palestinian parliament, where he pushed for peace with Israel.

Barghouti was also a key leader of the second intifada, which began in 2000. He was arrested, tried and convicted in Israel of multiple murders and is now serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail. Barghouti's supporters deny his involvement and say he is being held as a political prisoner.

Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas: Abbas is the president of the Palestinian National Authority. Abbas, also called Abu Mazen, was born in what is now northern Israel in 1935. He was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority on Jan. 9, 2005, and took office six days later. Abbas also took over as chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 2004, succeeding Yasser Arafat.

Abbas is viewed as a moderate Palestinian politician that lacks the charisma of Yasser Arafat.

Who are the key Hamas leaders?

Ismail Haniyeh. Getty Images

Ismail Haniyeh: Haniyeh is the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Haniyeh, who is in his 40s, was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He graduated from an Islamic University in 1987, the same year Hamas was founded. Two years later, he was imprisoned by Israeli officials and later deported to Lebanon. He returned to Gaza in 1993.

On Dec. 14, 2006, Haniyeh, who had been traveling abroad, was stopped at the Rafah border crossing. He was believed to be carrying tens of millions of dollars in foreign donations for his cash-strapped government. Israeli border guards refused to let him enter.

A gun battle between Hamas militants and Palestinian security forces loyal to Fatah was reported in response to the incident. When Haniyeh later attempted to cross the border, an exchange of gunfire left one of his bodyguard's dead and his eldest son wounded. Hamas denounced the firefight, saying it was as an assassination attempt by rival Fatah, an accusation which prompted firefights in the West Bank and Gaza City between Fatah and Hamas forces.

Mohammed Deif: Born in 1960, Deif is the commander of the military wing of Hamas, a position he's believed to have held since July 2002. Deif spent several years at the top of Israel's most wanted list. In 2005 a tape of Deif surfaced in which the militant commander and bomb maker referred to "armed resistance" as "a legal weapon alongside political activity." He also threatened to make all of Palestine "hell" for Israel and encouraged insurgents in Iraq.

Meshal. Getty Images

Khalid Meshal: The leader of both the military and political wings of Hamas in exile, Meshal lives in Damascus, Syria. He has called for the creation of a Palestinian army. Although he was a vocal critic of Yasser Arafat's leadership, Meshal attended the Palestinian leader's funeral in Cairo.

After the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, Meshal published an opinion piece in The Guardian which said, in part, "We shall never recognize the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights. We shall never recognize the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else's sins or solve somebody else's problem. But if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms.

NPR's Eric Westervelt contributed reporting to this piece.

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