Zahhar, Mahmud al- (1945–)

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Zahhar, Mahmud al-

Palestinian surgeon Mahmud al-Zahhar was one of the founders of Hamas along with Shaykh ahmad yasin in 1987. He is one of the ideological leaders of the movement.


Zahhar was born in the Zaytun district of Gaza City, mandatory Palestine, in 1945. His father was Palestinian and his mother Egyptian. He studied medicine at qAyn Shams University in Egypt, graduating in 1971. He spent five more years in Egypt where he specialized in surgery. He returned to Gaza, then under Israeli occupation, where he worked at the newly founded Islamic University of Gaza. One of his colleagues in the Department of Medicine was Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, who was also one of the founding members of Hamas, and who later was assassinated by the Israelis in April 2004. Upon his return to Gaza, Zahhar became active in the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, a branch of the banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928. Zahhar is married and has four children.

In addition to practicing medicine and being a political leader of Hamas, Zahhar has written a number of books on the health risks of smoking and the impact of smoking on the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, a study of the Qur'an, a study on media and Islamic discourse, and most recently a novel titled al-Rasif (The platform). He has also written a film scenario about a young man named Imad Aql who was killed in 1993 during the first intifada.


Zahhar was one of the founders of Hamas in 1987 along with Yasin and al-Rantisi. When the first demonstrations and actions against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip broke out in December 1987 and were labeled the intifada, the Muslim Brotherhood members met and decided to form a more active and political wing to counter the Israeli occupation. They named this group Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), or Hamas. It eventually gained followers and supporters as a result of it providing extensive health, education, and social services in the absence of such services due to the occupation, and because of its direct and oftentimes violent resistance to the Israeli occupation military and settlers. The military movement of Hamas is called the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, named after a Syrian religious activist who set off the Palestinian revolt of 1936–1939. Following the publication of the Hamas charter in August 1988, Israel banned the movement.

Yasin was arrested and imprisoned in 1989 and Zahhar and Rantisi are said to have led the group during that period. In December 1992, Zahhar and more than four hundred Islamist activists were deported to southern Lebanon. Among those deported were Rantisi and Zahhar's brother Fadil. The activists camped at a place called Marj al-Zuhur for over a year, and their case was widely covered in the world media. Both Zahhar and Rantisi were eventually allowed to return to Gaza, although Fadil al-Zahhar and seventeen others were not.

Since 1990 Zahhar had been the unofficial representative of Hamas to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by yasir arafat. But upon Zahhar's return in 1994, he clashed with the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA) that had been put in place in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accords). He was arrested several times and spent seven months in a Palestinian jail. In 2004 Israeli aircraft dropped a bomb on his Gaza house in an assassination attempt that resulted in the killing of his oldest son, Khalid, a bodyguard, and wounding his daughter Rima and twenty other people.


As minister of foreign affairs for the newly formed Hamasled government (March 2006–March 2007), Zahhar sent a letter to the United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan in which he emphasized the interest of the Palestinian government in starting a serious and constructive dialogue in order to achieve "peace and stability in our region on the basis of a just and comprehensive solution." He urged the international community to "take concrete and urgent measures to put an end to the serious Israeli violations to international law, and to exert pressure on the Israeli government to abide by international law, especially international humanitarian law, and implement the international agreements and the legal decision issued by the International Court of Justice."


Name: Mahmud al-Zahhar

Birth: 1945, Gaza City, mandatory Palestine

Family: Wife, Summaya; four children. Eldest son Khalid (b. 1974) killed in Israeli assassination attempt in 2004

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: B.S. in medicine from 'Ayn Shams University in Egypt (1971), M.A. in general surgery (1976)


  • 1987: Helps found Hamas
  • 1992: Deported to South Lebanon
  • 1994: Allowed to return to Gaza
  • 2004: Becomes one of Hamas's main leaders; survives Israeli assassination attempt
  • 2006: Minister of foreign affairs in Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government

Much of the media portrays Zahhar as the leader of Hamas, but following the Israeli assassinations of Yasin and Rantisi in rapid succession in 2004, Hamas has elected leaders but kept their identity and the movement's governing structures secret. He was not included in the Palestinian National Unity government that was established in the PA in March 2007. One of the concerns of many people involves the potential changes to the social fabric of Palestinian society that an Islamist government in power might bring. Following the banning of a book of Palestinian folktales by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, many Palestinians and others have started asking questions about the social agenda of Hamas. In an interview on the al-Arabiyya satellite channel, the host inquired about the banning of movies, songs, and dance. Zahhar replied that such issues are the purview of the clerics, but he stated that people should not be watching or participating in idle things and instead should engage in things that reflect their own realities and serve the nation. He also commented that most Palestinians already do this and that the increased religiosity among people is voluntary and a result of conviction and respect for the self.


Zahhar was part of the shift within Hamas to join the Palestinian government by engaging in the legislative elections of January 2006. Previously, Hamas had boycotted most PA elections, and Zahhar had stated on numerous occasions that Hamas would join a Palestinian government only when Palestinian land was liberated and the government was of a state and not of an autonomy.

Many believed Zahhar would be one of the candidates to be put forth by Hamas to be prime minister following the 2006 legislative elections, but the party chose the lesser-known ismail haniyeh instead. Zahhar sees the new Palestinian government playing a significant role in restructuring Palestinian internal politics as well as relations with Israelis. "Our government will really need to work on many different things in parallel. We need to get investment from the Middle East. We need to build up many projects here: in the municipalities, in the health services, in education. And at the same time, we need to speak politically with others, to win the rights of Palestinians both outside and inside Palestine. We are their father." At the same time he is highly critical of Israel. "The Israelis have violated all of the economic agreements from the Paris Agreement to the Rafah Agreement (which was concluded with U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's intervention in 2005). So we are not obliged to remain within them," he said in an interview with Helena Cobban on 18 March 2006. Zahhar believes that Hamas's clean record and absence of corruption makes the Arab and Muslim countries open to it as a political movement and so they will be willing to fund Hamas. He contrasts Hamas's activities with the PLO, citing the treatment of Arab countries toward the PLO as dismissive because of PLO corruption and bad behavior toward other Arabs.


Cobban, Helena. "Interview with Zahhar." Just World News. Updated 18 March 2006. Available from

Zahhar, Mahmud. "The Full Text of Zahhar's Letter to Annan." Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre. Updated 4 April 2006. Available from

Zahhar, Mahmud, and Hussein Hijazi. "Hamas: Waiting for Secular Nationalism to Self-Destruct. An Interview with Mahmud Zahhar." Journal of Palestine Studies 24, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 81-88.

                                       Rochelle Anne Davis


We strongly believe in the justice of our cause and in the capabilities of our people to confront and remain steadfast in front of the military occupation of our lands and the illegal measures of the occupation; we also believe that justice and law are the basis of the solution, security and stability in the region and that the logic of force and imposing the status quo is illegal and will be defeated and will only lead to more destruction and instability. We, like all other peoples in the world, are looking forward to live in peace and security and to see that our people enjoy freedom, independence and a dignified life side by side with the rest of our neighbors in this sacred area of the world.