Hamas between realpolitik and terrorism

In a rare move against its longtime ally, Khaled Mashal along with his top political advisers left Damascus in February 2012. Now based in Doha, the Chairman of Hamas’ political branch openly denounces the Syrian regime and together with Ismail Haniya, Prime Minister of the terrorist movement in Gaza, calls for Arab support of the anti-government forces. This drastic change in policy highlights a potential tectonic shift in the Near Eastern power balance. By openly challenging Al Assad’s legitimacy, Hamas took an opposite stance with regards to its closest supporters in Teheran. On November 6th, Hamas Spokesman Ayman Taha stated that the Syrian government definitively closed the movement’s offices in Damascus, indicating a point of no return in the relations between Hamas and the Al Assad’s regime. Such a choice is likely to further weaken the so-called resistance block, which is suffering from blowbacks in Syria and Lebanon.

The Gulf Monarchies, intrinsically opposed to Iran’s regional policies, have seized the opportunity provided by the wedge created between Hamas and its previous financial and logistic supporters. With the visit of Sheikh Al Thani, Emir of Qatar to Gaza on October 24th, Hamas and especially Ismail Haniya are gaining unprecedented diplomatic support by one of the regional powerhouses. Rumors indicate that Sheikh Al Khalifa, Emir of Bahrain, is likely to plan his own visit to the Hamas controlled strip. A visit by the ruler of Bahrain represents an implicit blessing by the Saudi royal family thus putting the Sunni diplomatic and financial superpowers in competition over their backing of Hamas.

These events are taking place while Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority are undergoing a profound socio-political crisis. As peace negotiations are frozen and the UN push for recognition is an evident fiasco, the PA risks to be no longer considered the only preferred partner for talks among Arab powers.

If the present situation appears to provide Hamas with unprecedented power in Gaza and the region, an internal struggle may well be about to shake the terrorist movement’s structure and generate a risk of increased violence. It is now well known that Khaled Mashal will leave his position as chairman of the politburo thus rendering the external branch of the movement weaker in a period during which the terrorist movement itself is still adjusting to its geographic relocation. While Khaled Mashal is being defined as a “Zionist agent” by his former Syrian allies, Ismail Haniya is struggling to control his direct competitors from the Islamic Jihad. As it is pushing to be considered a legitimate figure in the international scene, the movement is increasingly being challenged by grassroots groups who keep on believing that widespread terrorist attacks remain preferable to diplomatic visibility.

With events in Syria, fissures in the top ranks and Mashal stepping down, one can suspect that the only successors left might either be Abu Marzouk or Saleh Al Arouri. As a result, internal dynamics are causing a lot of soul searching as Hama’s leadership is – in a nutshell — trying to decide whether “resistance” or governance should be a priority and to define the group’s strategy vis-à-vis Fatah in the context of the Palestinian process of national reconciliation. It appears that these two contenders will have a great role to play in the next few months.

Meanwhile in Egypt, Morsi’s attitude vis-à-vis Hamas has defied expectations. With the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, experts feared the turn Hamas’ relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood would take. In addition to that, sraelis have been very skeptical as to Egypt’s evolving stance regarding its enemy in the south. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas share common historical roots and an undeniable hatred of the Jewish State. Hamas had high hopes when the Morsi was elected, but instead, actions have repeatedly been taken against tunnels used for smuggling and commercial exchanges constituting an important source of revenue for the terrorist organization. The Egyptian government has also been involved in pushing for a truce during periods of escalation. Regardless of Morsi’s attempts to control the Sinai and curb Hamas escalations, there is still a high risk of sustained rocket barrages being fired and Egypt’s evolving stance alone cannot alter significantly the underlying rules of the game that have been established over the past years.

There are, however, other developments that have great potential of stirring things up. One of them being the growing independence of militant sub groups within Hamas. This is in part due to important shifts and evolution happening elsewhere in the region. As a result of the Syrian uprising, Hamas now increasingly seems like an orphan looking for shelter. Additionally, a scattered leadership can make things somewhat riskier. Members are currently spread throughout Khartoum, Istanbul, Gaza, Cairo and Doha. In the past year, Mashal has been leading efforts to find new patrons in order to guarantee stability and prevent potential threats of breaking up coming from within the terrorist organization.

As these changes are occurring, one might think that Hamas’s epicenter of support is moving from Syria to Egypt and even further away from Iran. However, it must be remembered that at the very same time, Khaled Ghadoumi, chief of Hamas’ political bureau in Iran has just reaffirmed its strategic relationship with the country. With a leadership divided over such crucial questions, there are many reasons to believe that there’s trouble ahead as different groups will be tempted to take advantage of the tensions with Israel to consolidate the group’s internal position.

About the Author
Riccardo Dugulin is an independant international affairs analyst. He holds a Master in International Security from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and has worked in leading think tanks in Washington DC, Beirut and Dubai and has held the position of security coordinator for a security assistance firm.