What is Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades?

The Gaza-based Qassam Brigades has been waging an armed resistance against Israeli occupation since its founding in 1992.

Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades
Fighters from the Qassam Brigades march in Gaza [File: Adel Hana/AP Photo]

Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, has been governing the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, carried out attacks inside Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people and taking up about 200 people captive, sending shockwaves across Israel.

Israel has since killed more than 8,000 Palestinians in indiscriminate bombings that the United Nations chief said were “clear violations of international humanitarian laws”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged its troops will enter the besieged Palestinian enclave to destroy Hamas and its military wing as well as other Palestinian armed groups. The Qassam Brigades responded saying it was “ready”. The threat of the ground invasion, Qassam spokesperson Abu Obeideh said, “doesn’t scare us”.

Analysts say the ground invasion would be bloody as Qassam fighters can engage Israeli troops in urban warfare using a network of tunnels.

Here’s what to know about the origins and evolution of the Qassam Brigades:

What is Hamas and when was it founded?

Hamas – an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) – means zeal.

It emerged as the leading political force in Gaza in 1987 during the first Intifada – the peaceful mass uprising against Israeli land expropriation and settlements. It has a presence in the occupied West Bank as well.

The group’s vast network of social welfare activities, including food distribution during Ramadan and building schools and hospitals, boosted its popularity over the years.

Hamas was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yasin as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. Like the majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, Yasin was a refugee from 1948 – the year Israel was declared a state. More than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by Jewish militias from their homes in what is now Israel.

The Hamas leader defended Palestinian rights to armed resistance against Israeli occupation of Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem and was critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for renouncing armed resistance. The PA governs the occupied West Bank.

A mass Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, known as the second Intifada, after then-Israeli politician Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – Islam’s third holiest site – where Jewish prayers are not allowed. Israeli settlers want to demolish the mosque and build a Jewish temple.

Israel cracked down on protesters, often using lethal military tactics, including assassinations of Palestinian leaders, triggering more violence.

In 2003, Yasin called for ceasefire talks on the condition that Israel withdraw from the Palestinian territories based on the 1967 borders and stop assassinating resistance leaders.

On March 22, 2004, he was assassinated at the age of 67 by the Israeli military while emerging out of a mosque in Gaza City following fajr (dawn) prayers. Yasin’s deputy, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, took over the reins of Hamas following his assassination.

Over the years, Hamas’s grip on Gaza tightened as the 1993 Oslo Accord signed between Palestinians and Israel failed to realise the Palestinian aspirations of a sovereign state. The Palestinian group accused Israel of using the deal to expand illegal settlements on territories occupied in 1967.

In 2006, the group won parliamentary elections in Gaza and took over the reins of the Palestinian enclave in 2007. Israel imposed a blockade on the enclave after Hamas took power.

Ismail Haniyeh has led the political wing of Hamas since he took over Khaled Meshaal in 2017.

What is the Qassam Brigades?

Hamas established its military unit, the Qassam Brigades, in 1992 to support its objective of armed resistance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The name is inspired by Syrian freedom fighter Ezzedine al-Qassam, who struggled against European colonisers in the Levant. After he was expelled to Palestine by the French colonialists, he took up the Palestinian cause, calling for armed resistance against Jews and British assets.

He was killed by the British colonial authorities in 1935. His armed struggle and subsequent death are believed to have triggered the 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine.

The Qassam Brigades has carried out numerous attacks, including suicide attacks, against Israel as part of its armed struggle against Israel.

Gaza’s largest and most well-organised armed group is headed by military commander Mohammed Deif and his deputy, Marwan Issa.

Israeli forces killed the Qassam Brigades’s founding leader Salah Shehadeh in a 2002 air attack.

How strong are the Qassam Brigades?

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Qassam Brigades have 20,000 to 25,000 members, although this number is disputed.

The armed group is believed to possess a large inventory of guns, grenades and improvised rockets though its exact strength and military capabilities are not publicly known.

Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza provided Hamas with the opportunity to develop its military wing. Financial support, allegedly from Iran, is said to have enabled the armed group to develop sophisticated military capabilities.

Hamas sees its arsenal as a crucial deterrent against Israeli aggression and has refused to surrender its weapons, as demanded by the PA.

The Qassam Brigades has lost thousands of fighters in Israeli attacks and its resources have been depleted in numerous Israeli air raids and military offensive in the past one and a half decades.

What is the Qassam Brigades’s military activities?

The Brigades is said to acquire its weapons through smuggling and making some weapons locally.

According to a 2021 report by the US Department of State, the Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian armed groups launched more than 4,400 rockets in confrontations with Israel in 2021. In 11 days of fighting, at least 260 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks while 13 people were killed on the Israeli side.

Reports say the Qassam Brigades has expertise in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket launchers, antitank missiles and mortars, but it relies a great deal on strategy and stealth, with an extensive tunnel infrastructure that enables its fighters to move around undetected.

It has enhanced its rocket capacity and has added drones to its arsenal recently. It used the cover of a barrage of rockets to overcome the highly fortified Israeli fence separating Gaza on October 7.

Why did Hamas attack on October 7?

Hamas said its attack was in response to Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and rising settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It said it had managed to take enough captives to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, and some analysts have said the acceleration of Arab-Israeli normalisation may have been another factor.

“This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth,” said Deif, the Qassam Brigades military commander. He openly called on supporters and Muslim nations to join the armed struggle.

What are Gaza’s other armed resistance groups?

Other armed groups in Gaza have indicated that they are joining the current resistance against Israeli forces.

Chief among them are the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds Brigades. Formed in 1992, al-Quds has claimed responsibility for at least 23 rocket attacks, according to data gathered by the Critical Threats Project.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also has an active military presence in Gaza through the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades and has been joining calls for armed resistance through official Telegram messages.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies