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 November

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 21,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

During a temporary truce at the end of November, Hamas released 105 hostages and Israel freed 240 Palestinian prisoners in exchange.

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

Since the 7 October attacks, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) warplanes have carried out air strikes across Gaza while its troops have moved through the territory.

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

Israel, the UK, US and other Western powers class Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Mr Netanyahu also declared that Israel would have “overall security responsibility” for Gaza “for an indefinite period” after the conflict. However, he later said Israel had no plans to reoccupy the territory.

Israel drafted 300,000 reservists for the operation, boosting its standing force of 160,000.

What is happening on the ground in Gaza?

The IDF says it has struck more than 22,000 targets since 7 October.

It also says it has destroyed more than 800 tunnel shafts built underneath Gaza. Hamas previously claimed that its tunnel network stretches for 500km (310 miles).

Satellite images suggest that nearly 100,000 buildings in Gaza may have been damaged during the fighting.

Map showing damage to northern Gaza as at 16 December 2023
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After the temporary truce ended, Israeli troops pushed into southern Gaza and began operations against Hamas and other armed groups in and around the city of Khan Younis.

The ground offensive is now expanding into refugee camps in central Gaza.

The IDF has carried out many air strikes on Rafah, near the Egyptian border, where it previously told residents of Khan Younis to flee.

There has been fierce fighting in the north, around the Jabalia refugee camp and the Shejaiya district of Gaza City. The UN estimates that 100,000 civilians remain in the north.

Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters during the war and arrested hundreds.

The IDF says 167 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of its ground offensive on 27 October.

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 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 seven-day pause in fighting began on 24 November.

A Palestinian teen hugs a family member after being released
Image caption,Large crowds have been gathering in the occupied West Bank to greet Palestinians released from Israeli jails

During the truce, 81 Israelis and dual nationals were released, along with 24 foreigners. In return for the Israeli hostages, 240 Palestinians were free from Israeli jails.

Hamas let four Israeli hostages go before the truce, and another was freed by Israeli forces.

Israeli troops mistakenly shot dead three hostages who were displaying a white flag in Gaza on 15 December.

It is believed that more than 100 hostages remain alive in Gaza. A number of bodies have also been recovered and Israeli officials have confirmed the deaths of more than 20 people who had been held by Hamas.

Why did the pause in fighting end, and will another be agreed?

Each side blamed the other for the collapse of the truce and resumption of fighting on 1 December.

Mr Netanyahu said Hamas had not “met its obligation to release all of the women hostages”, and had “launched rockets at Israeli citizens”. https://brewokkiri.com/

Hamas said Israel had refused “to accept all offers to release other hostages”.

On 13 December, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, as well as the “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages”.

Five days earlier, the US had vetoed a similar draft resolution at the UN Security Council, saying a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup.

A woman cries as she hugs an injured man after an Israeli air strike on Rafah, southern Gaza. Photo: 12 December 2023
Image caption,A woman cries as she hugs an injured man after an Israeli air strike on Rafah in southern Gaza on 12 December

On 22 December, the Security Council adopted a resolution calling for “urgent steps to immediately allow safe, unhindered, and expanded humanitarian access and to create the conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities”. But it stopped short of calling for a ceasefire in order to avoid a US veto.

Hamas has said it and other armed groups in Gaza will not release any more hostages until Israel agrees to end the war.

Mr Netanyahu has promised to push on the war “until the end”. “Whoever talks about stopping – there is no such thing,” he told troops on 25 December.

What is the humanitarian situation in Gaza?

Medical staff treat patients at Al-Nasser Hospital in Rafah
Image caption,Only a fraction of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are still functioning

The Hamas-run health ministry says more than 55,000 people have been injured since the start of the war.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says only 13 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functioning.

The nine hospitals in the south are operating at three times their capacity, while facing critical shortages of basic supplies and fuel for generators.

Mr Netanyahu has admitted that Israel has been “not successful” in minimising civilian casualties, but says Hamas has been using Gaza’s civilians as human shields.

Palestinians line up for flour being distributed by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in Deir Al Balah, Gaza on 7 December, 2023
Image caption,Food supplies are scarce, and there is overwhelming demand for the limited amount of flour distributed by the UN

UN agencies say 26% of Gazans – 576,600 people – have exhausted their food supplies and coping capacities and face “catastrophic hunger and starvation”.

According to Unrwa, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, 1.9 million Gazan residents – about 85% of the population – have been displaced, and 1.4 million of them are sheltering in its facilities.

Many of them fled the fighting in the north after an Israeli order to move south of the Wadi Gaza river valley for their own safety.

Tens of thousands have moved to Rafah to escape the fighting. The UN says there are at least 486 people for every toilet in its shelters there.

Map showing areas of the southern Gaza Strip that the Israeli military has told residents to evacuate (10 December 2023)

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

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

Israel allowed limited aid deliveries to resume via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing on 21 October. However, the UN says the number of lorries entering each day has been about a fifth of the daily average of 500 before the war.

Israel has severely limited supplies of fuel, arguing that it could be stolen by Hamas and used for military purposes.

Fuel shortages have meant that water pumps and desalination plants, waste and sanitation services, and many bakeries have been unable to function.

An aid truck moves through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel to Gaza
Image caption,The reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing provides another route to get aid into Gaza

On 17 December, Israel reopened the Kerem Shalom goods crossing with Gaza, allowing another route for aid to enter the territory.

However, the UN says it is struggling to distribute aid beyond the Rafah area. blaming a shortage of lorries, the lack of fuel, frequent telecommunications blackouts and the dangers of travelling through areas where there is fighting.

Hundreds of foreign passport holders – including some British and US citizens – and seriously wounded and sick Palestinians have been able to leave through Rafah, but many remain.

What happened during the Hamas 7 October attacks 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.

It was the most serious cross-border attack against Israel in more than a generation.

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.

The BBC has also seen and heard evidence of rape, sexual violence and mutilation of women during the Hamas attacks, Victims included children, teenagers and pensioners.

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

The attacks 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.

Yahya Sinwar in 2021
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.

Map showing Israel and the Palestinian Territories and surrounding countries

Previously occupied by Egypt, Gaza was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

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

Home to 2.2 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.

The Palestinian president is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. He is based in the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation.

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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