Palestinian militants move towards the border fence with Israel from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Jerusalem: The Palestinian group Hamas has launched a surprise attack from Gaza into Israel, in one of the most serious escalations in the Israel-Palestinian conflict in years.

What is Hamas?

Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising.

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It is backed by Iran and shares the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in Egypt in the 1920s.

It has run the Gaza Strip since 2007, after a brief civil war with forces loyal to the Fatah movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank and also heads the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Hamas takeover of Gaza followed its win in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 the last time they were held.

Hamas accused Abbas of conspiring against it. Abbas described what happened as a coup.

Since then, there have been numerous rounds of conflict with Israel, often involving Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel and Israeli airstrikes and bombardment of Gaza.

Hamas refuses to recognise the state of Israel and violently opposed the Oslo peace accords negotiated by Israel and the PLO in the mid-1990s.

Hamas has an armed wing called the Izz Al Deen Al Qassam Brigades, which has sent gunmen and suicide bombers into Israel.

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A woman weeps over the covered corpse of her nephew who was shot dead in the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023 Image Credit: AFP

Hamas characterizes its armed activities as resistance against Israeli occupation.

Its 1988 founding charter called for the destruction of Israel, although Hamas leaders have at times offered a long-term truce, or Hudna in Arabic, with Israel in return for a viable Palestinian state on all Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel regards this as a ruse.

It is designated as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States, European Union, Canada, Egypt and Japan.

Hamas is part of a regional alliance comprising Iran, Syria and Islamist militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which all broadly oppose US policy in the Middle East and Israel.

While its power base is in Gaza, Hamas also has supporters across the Palestinian territories, and it has leaders spread across the Middle East in countries including Qatar.

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This is a locator map of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (AP Photo) Image Credit: AP

What is the Gaza Strip?

The Gaza Strip is a 41km- (25-mile) long and 10km-wide territory between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It is home to about 2.3 million people and has one of the highest population densities in the world.

What is life like in the Gaza Strip?

Israel controls the air space over Gaza and its shoreline and restricts who and what goods are allowed in and out through its border crossings. Similarly, Egypt controls who passes in and out through its border with Gaza.

About 80% of the population of Gaza depends on international aid, according to the UN, and about one million people rely on daily food aid.

Four previous Israel-Gaza wars in 15 years

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel is “at war” with the Palestinian movement Hamas, which fired rockets and infiltrated Israel from Gaza Saturday and also engaged soldiers on the ground.

Israel has already fought four wars with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip since its forces and settlers withdrew from the coastal territory in 2005 - in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021.

Here are the key flare-ups:

2008: ‘Cast Lead’

On December 27, 2008, Israel launches a campaign of air strikes against militants in Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

It later also deploys ground forces.

By the time a ceasefire is announced on January 18, 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed.

2012: ‘Pillar of Defence’

On November 14, 2012, Israel launches Operation Pillar of Defence with a missile strike that kills top Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari.

In the ensuing eight-day conflict, 177 Palestinians and six Israelis are killed.

Gaza militants fire more than 1,000 rockets into Israel, hundreds of which are intercepted by the “Iron Dome” missile defence system.

2014: ‘Protective Edge’

On July 8, 2014, Israel launches Operation Protective Edge, again with the stated goal of stopping Palestinian rocket fire and destroying tunnels used by militants to infiltrate Israel.

It pounds the enclave from the air and the sea.

The seven-week conflict kills 2,251 Palestinians and 74 Israelis, including 68 soldiers.

May 2021: 11-day war

Israel responds to a barrage of Hamas rocket fire with an 11-day campaign of air and artillery strikes that kill at least 248 people in Gaza, including 66 children.

Thirteen are killed on the Israeli side, including one soldier.

Hamas had launched the rockets after clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem that left hundreds of Palestinians injured.

May 2023: clashes with Islamic Jihad

Five days of fighting between Israel and Gaza’s other militant group, Islamic Jihad, leave 33 dead in Gaza and two in Israel - a Palestinian labourer from Gaza and an elderly Israeli.

Israeli strikes kill at least six top figures from Islamic Jihad, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

At least six children and multiple civilians are also among the dead in Gaza before a ceasefire is negotiated by Egypt.