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West Bank and Gaza

Beverley Milton-Edwards
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

West Bank and Gaza

The territories west of the Jordan River, lost by Jordan in the 1967 war with Israel, are known as the West Bank; the Gaza Strip, lost to Israel by Egypt in the same war, is a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean coast. These territories have been the subject of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the majority population of both areas. Islamic tradition has considered Palestine central to the faith. The Prophet Muhammad ordained Jerusalem the site of the first qiblah, the direction toward which Muslims pray. The city is also the location of al-Aq, the “Farthest Mosque” appearing in the Vision of the Ascension of the Prophet (sūrah 17:1 of the Qurʿān), which details a mystical night journey by the Prophet to Jerusalem. Muslim leaders throughout the history of Islam have fought against any power threatening Muslim rule of the holy city. Thus, the nature of Islamic life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is inextricably linked to the symbolism of Palestine to the Muslim faith. This link has meant that Muslims throughout the world feel a special affinity to the city of Jerusalem and feel compelled to protest when Islamic sovereignty over the shrines associated with the Prophet Muhammad is threatened.

Under the British Mandate.

The links between religion, war, and politics were reinforced in the early decades of the twentieth century, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Palestine's Muslim leaders assumed new roles under the mandate of the British colonial authorities (1917–1948). The most senior religious figure, al-Ḥājj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī (d. 1974), muftī of Jerusalem and a British appointee, faced challenges from the growth of a secular and nationalist Palestinian movement, foreign authority, and the Zionist movement. Within the Palestinian Islamic movement he was confronted by the rise of a populist movement led by Syrian-born and Egyptian-educated Shaykh ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām (d. 1935).

Both al-Ḥusaynī and al-Qassām were disciples of the Islamic modernist movement which sought to combine the essentials of the Islamic faith with the modern political context. Yet these leaders employed radically different approaches to the political issues of the period. The most prominent of these issues were British rule and their policies toward the Zionist movement. Perceiving isolation and marginalization, the leadership of the Muslim population responded.

In northern Palestine, in the area around Haifa, Shaykh al-Qassām organized a populist response in the predominantly peasant community. He encouraged the peasants to reestablish the basic principles of Islamic faith and to resort to armed resistance against the British authorities and rapidly expanding European Jewish population. Although al-Qassām was killed by British forces in November 1935, his followers continued their campaign and were key figures in the leadership of the Palestinian uprising (1936–1939). As an activist rather than as a thinker, al-Qassām has influenced recent Islamic and nationalist groups, including Ḥamās—which named its military wing after al-Qassām—the Islamic Jihād in Palestine, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Al-Ḥājj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī played a pivotal role in the Palestinian uprising of 1936, and, as a consequence, was stripped of his religious authority and forced into exile by the British authorities. He is criticized for mishandling Palestinian aspirations for political self-determination because he acted as a moderating and appeasing influence during the uprising. Like al-Qassām, al-Ḥusaynī was not an intellectual, yet his influence on the politics of Islam in Palestine and on its relationship with nationalist and other forces has endured.

After the Six Day War.

After Israeli occupation in 1967 the traditional Muslim leadership, formerly supported by Jordanian religious endowments, sought to maintain the daily religious practice. They have also protested against Israeli actions such as confiscation of property, neglect of religious shrines, arrest and deportation of preachers, censorship of sermons, and interference with travel to mosques. These actions have radicalized sections of the Muslim clergy, who, following Shaykh al-Qassām's example, have formed independent political agendas and concentrated their work and activities among the poorer sections of the refugee community of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Preachers such as Shaykh ʿAbd al-Azīz ʿAwdah, of the Islamic Jihād (1985), and Shaykh Aḥmad Yāsīn, the leader of al-Mujtamah al-Islāmī (the Islamic Assembly) and its offshoot Ḥamās (1988), built their own independently funded mosques, welfare networks, schools, and health clinics. These Islamic leaders and their followers distanced themselves from traditional figures like Shaykh ʿAbd al-hamīd al-Sayeh, president of the Palestine National Council, and Shaykh ʿIzz al-Dīn al-ʿAlamī, the muftī of Jerusalem, who supported the secular Palestine Liberation Organization which, since 1988, has accepted the “two-state solution,” implying recognition of the state of Israel and establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, rivalry within the Muslim leadership of the West Bank and Gaza Strip grew between those who supported the PLO and those who reject the state of Israel and resist the influences of nationalist-secularism and Western mores and values in favor of a return to the principles of Islam. These divergences came to the fore during the first Palestinian intifāḍah (uprising), which broke out in 1987.

In the 1990s the Palestinian Islamist organizations opposed the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that were initiated under international auspices. They denounced the signing of a “Declaration of Principles” for peace between Israel and the PLO (the Oslo Accords) in September 1993. The Islamist organizations stepped up armed attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli government outlawed Ḥamās and Islamic Jihād and deported more than four hundred of their members in 1992. Israel has also imprisoned the leaders and cadres of both organizations.

Ḥamās remained implacably opposed to the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the interim Palestinian Authority in centers of Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They boycotted elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Presidency. Following the massacre of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers at the al-Ibrāhīmī mosque in Hebron by an Israeli settler in 1994, Ḥamās launched its first suicide-bomb attacks in Israel against civilian targets. In 1996 the Palestinian National Authority, established under the terms of the Oslo Accords and headed by Yasser Arafat, acceded to Israeli demands to crack down on the Ḥamās movement. The Palestinian Authority (PA) security chief ordered the arrest and detention of scores of Islamists and raided institutions run by or associated with Ḥamās; such actions further poisoned relations between the organizations.

Twenty-First Century.

Following the outbreak of the second armed intifāḍah in 2000–2005, Ḥamās and Islamic Jihād spearheaded a new campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli targets. The suicide bombing campaigns were planned and executed by Palestinians coming from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli countermeasures included the targeted assassination of the leadership of Ḥamās including founder and spiritual guide Sheikh Aḥmad Yāsīn, and the construction of a wall and fencing enclosing the Muslim majority populations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the 2006 legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians elected Ḥamās members to the majority of seats. The formation of a Ḥamās government of the Palestinian Authority followed in April 2006. The government and its institutions were boycotted by most of the international community who demanded that the popularly elected Ḥamās government recognize Israel, desist from violence, and abide by previous agreements.



  • Abu-Amr, Ziyad. Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad. Bloomington, Indiana, 1994. The best study to date of the Islamic Jihād movement in the Israeli Occupied Territories.
  • Hroub, Khaled. Hamas: Political Thought and Practice. Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000. Good examination of the ideology and politics of the Ḥamās movement.
  • Mattar, Philip. The Mufti of Jerusalem: Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and the Palestinian National Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
  • Milton-Edwards, Beverley. Islamic Politics in Palestine. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Historical and contemporary examination of Islamic politics, first published in 1996.
  • Porath, Yehoshua. The Emergence of the Palestinian National Movement, 1918–1929. London: Frank Cass, 1974. Useful overview of Palestine under the British mandate.
  • Tamimi, Azzam. Hamas: Unwritten Chapters. London: Hurst, 2006. Authoritative account of the origins, growth, and impact of Ḥamās.
  • Wilson, Mary C.Review of The Mufti of Jerusalem, by Philip Mattar. American Historical Review95, no. 4 (1990): 1261.
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