This piece was prepared for a workshop on long-term trends in Palestine held in Amman, Jordan, in September 2014.
With the end of the third Gaza war that broke out between July 8 and August 26, 2014, Hamas finds itself today faced with a wide array of internal and external challenges.
The Fragile Reconciliation With the Palestinian Authority
Hamas is currently involved in a serious internal debate regarding the future of the reconciliation agreement it signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the end of April 2014. This paved the way for the establishment, in June, of a national unity government, seven years after a total severance of ties between Gaza and the West Bank. In fact, there is growing concern within Hamas that the movement will have to offer major concessions that its military commanders are in no particular hurry to cede to the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
In fact, it might be that the latest regional developments, especially on Gaza’s southern borders with the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood–backed Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, have pushed Hamas, mainly in Gaza, to rush reconciliation—even though it was aware it might bear more losses than gains.
That being said, Hamas struggles under a dual siege in the West Bank by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There, reconciliation did little to ease Hamas’s security woes. Yet its counterpart in Gaza asserted that it would maintain its control over the strip despite reconciliation with the PLO, warning that any attempt to duplicate the regional scenario in Gaza, namely, the Egyptian coup against Morsi, would no doubt fail.
Therefore, today, many within Hamas feel that the reconciliation is more precarious and fragile than ever. After Morsi’s ouster, Egypt became overtly opposed to Hamas, which it views as aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time the Palestinian Authority failed to honor its reconciliation commitments leading up to the last war on Gaza: to open border crossings, pay former Hamas government employee salaries, and accelerate the pace of reconstruction in Gaza.
Rationalizing Militant Work and Integrating the Political Process
Between 2011 and 2013, Hamas decisionmaking bodies witnessed an unprecedented internal debate revolving around the need to move away from pure military struggle and armed resistance to engage in political action and popular resistance, with the possibility of entering at a later stage into negotiations with Israel, at least indirectly.
This was accompanied by a general atmosphere of openness toward Hamas, with its leaders travelling to major capitals in all four corners of the world, receiving representatives of different countries, and learning the secrets of international politics, diplomatic deals, and pragmatic concessions. All of this comforted Hamas with the thought that it might finally be scratched off the European Union’s and the United States’ black lists of terrorist organizations and become a fully recognized, legitimate political power.
This is an objective that unites the leadership of Hamas. However, this same leadership is torn by the political price to pay for this historic achievement, especially in view of the following hurdles:
- Internally, a number of military leaders with radical opinions regarding Israel were elected in 2012 to the political bureau, the highest authority in Hamas.
- In Israel, there is a right-wing government that refuses to cooperate with even the most moderate Palestinian party, the Palestinian Authority, and it rejects all negotiations on the creation of an independent state.
- On the regional level, the Islamists have been overthrown in Egypt, and the Egyptian military has refused to put Hamas forward as a party in the negotiations with Israel because it considers Hamas to be nothing short of an extension of its sworn enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Military Power and Confrontation With Israel
Hamas has emerged from a bloody war with Israel that it was left on its own to face, a major military blow that came to finish what the war in November 2012 had not. The 2014 war had, in fact, been triggered as voices in Israel called for a new invasion of Gaza after reports confirmed Hamas’s rising military power, widening of the tunnel network that was partly unearthed by Israel during the 2012 conflict, and possession of advanced weaponry such as antitank and antiaircraft missiles and considerable quantities of ammunition.
Hamas fears that halted communication with Egypt, which now only opens the Rafah border crossing for humanitarian cases, could be understood by Israel as a withdrawal of Egyptian protection that would leave Gaza orphaned. These fears are particularly true because Israel already benefited from the absence of the Egyptian deterrent, with Morsi out of power, when it launched its latest military campaign against Gaza.
However, Hamas’s multiple efforts to avoid Israeli provocation, mainly by deploying militants on the borders to control areas of instability and ensuring that no missiles are launched against Israel, did not succeed in averting another ruthless war following the abduction and killing of three settlers in mid-June.
On the eastern borders of Gaza, there is a state of prudent peace in the aftermath of the 2014 war, with both Hamas and Israel clearly unwilling to plunge in another vicious round of conflict.
Hamas in the West Bank
Hamas believes that confrontation with Israel in the long term will not take place in Gaza but rather in the West Bank. It has therefore frequently warned against the arrest campaigns waged by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli army against its militants and freed detainees who have been accused of returning to armed activity, especially because the most probable response would be the abduction of Israeli soldiers and settlers to exchange for Hamas detainees.
A quick look at the West Bank, from an operational and geographical point of view reveals that the area is prone to such actions. The West Bank bears a special importance for Hamas, because the closest point to the sea on its western borders with Israel ranges between 12 to 15 kilometers (or 7.5 to 9.3 miles). Moreover, its mountains overlook the depth of Israeli cities and over 45 percent of the Green Line (the 1949 demarcation line for Israel). This is why Israel has always aimed at keeping Hamas busy, to prevent it from catching its breath and having the time to acquire advanced weaponry.
However, there are many obstacles that prevent Hamas from conducting any field operation in the West Bank: the presence of the Israeli army, which has invaded and maintained its occupation of cities in the West Bank; the arrest of all military and political activists; the establishment of a large network of agents in charge of monitoring Hamas’s movements; and last but not least, the tight grip that the Palestinian Authority maintains over Hamas’s activities.
Despite these incapacities, the severe losses Gaza incurred in the 2014 war pushed many in Hamas to advocate shifting the confrontation with Israel to the West Bank, despite its lack of military and security infrastructure.
Hamas’s Foreign Ties
In less than two years, Hamas repositioned itself within the network of international alliances. After being counted for almost a decade as part of the regional axis led by Iran and including Syria and Hezbollah, it has seen itself gradually move toward another axis, represented at one time by Morsi’s Egypt, then Qatar and Turkey. In fact, the swift regional transformations offer some possibilities regarding the future of Hamas’s ties.
Hamas and Iran, No Honeymoon but No Divorce in Sight Either
It is expected that rapport between Hamas and Iran will resume after the war in Gaza, following news reports about a visit by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran and a meeting between him and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with the aim of buttressing bilateral ties. This visit seems to have been postponed for unclear reasons despite efforts on both sides to overcome the political crisis triggered by their differing stances vis-à-vis the Syrian war.
Hamas’s former allies in the region, namely Iran and Hezbollah, are seeking to renew relations with the movement despite Syrian objections. In fact, Syria has conditioned the possibility of such a reconciliation on an official apology from Hamas to the Syrian regime. Hamas has responded by issuing a public statement declaring that the movement will apologize to no one and does not regret any foreign policy decision it has taken in the past.
The confusion surrounding Meshal’s visit to Iran, and the rumors denying or talking about the postponement, make it clear that Hamas’s ties with Iran will not get back to normal despite the short-lived honeymoon. At the same time, however, it is keen on averting a total divorce, especially after the 2013 nuclear agreement Iran signed with the West in Geneva that might prompt it to withdraw from the armed forces in the region, including Hamas.
Hamas Will Remain in Qatar
In February 2012, Hamas found itself forced to relocate from Syria to Qatar after it voiced support for the Syrian revolution, despite being allied with the government before the uprising. Qatar provides Hamas with all facilities it requests and opens doors for Khaled Meshal to conduct his business unimpeded. Meshal has established strong ties with the Qatari state headed by the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. His own residence in Doha abounds with guests from all levels both within and outside the country: diplomats, ambassadors, politicians, and scholars.
Despite the considerable Qatari support to Hamas, this aid has remained political and financial, failing to replicate the military assistance that Hamas had received through its alliance with Iran and Syria, even though military aid is now much more urgent. Hamas is well aware that Qatar is not willing to draw the ire of the world by providing it with military support. Qatar is a state that acknowledges its own limitations and recognizes that any assistance to Hamas must be restricted to the political and financial realms.
However, the ties between Hamas and Qatar proved to be hard to break throughout the war in Gaza. Amid the regional alienation of Hamas during the fifty-day war, Doha was transformed into a destination for world politicians and diplomats as it hosted Meshal, the decisionmaker on peace and war in Hamas, who orchestrated his steps in close coordination with the young Qatari emir.
Turkey: The International Godfather
A simple observation of Turkish-Palestinian relations cannot but reveal the overt empathy Ankara expresses for Hamas. Reciprocally, the streets of Gaza abound with pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and many stores are named in his honor. Hospitals have also registered a new trend within the Palestinian community of naming newborns after Erdoğan, in the hope that they grow up to be like him. This mutual sympathy has been fortified through common political positions, such as the rupture of relations with Israel, support for the Syrian revolution, and rejection of the coup in Egypt.
Hamas considers Turkey its warmest host in a region shaken by developments of uncalculated consequences. The most obvious evidence is that Turkish cities are today home to tens of Hamas’s senior officials and members who sought refuge from the Syrian crisis. Moreover, Hamas leaders are often received by eminent political figures in Turkey, including Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and former president Abdullah Gül. These receptions have been sustained despite criticism, both open and private, from Washington and Tel Aviv.
In addition, the equal distance Ankara maintains with the two main Palestinian actors, namely the PLO and Hamas, has allowed it to position itself as a necessity for both parties. In fact, Ankara’s push for the recognition and acceptance of Hamas in the West, which led Hamas to consider Turkey its godfather on the regional and international levels, might be deemed a fulfillment of the PLO’s desire to tame Hamas and bring it into the political game through slow and careful steps. And no country is currently better placed than Turkey to embrace this mission.
In the 2014 Gaza war, Ankara emerged as the main regional sponsor of Hamas while the United States made a diplomatic push in which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held frequent meetings with Erdoğan, who had made himself the representative of Hamas in the ceasefire negotiations. His role was rejected by both Israel and Egypt, who believed that Turkey was helping to harden rather than soften Hamas’s stances.
Hamas Redefines Its Relations With Egypt
Relations between Hamas and Egypt have gone through many changes in the last few years. After being in constant crisis during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, they moved toward a progressive coalition in the era of Morsi. The coup against Morsi transformed Hamas’s optimistic dreams of a strong regional network into a painful nightmare from which it has yet to wake up. This prompted it recently to reposition its alliances in the region to avoid losing them all at once.
Ever since Morsi was overthrown in Egypt, Hamas has felt that it was struck by lightning. This is due partly to its ideological connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and partly to the negative repercussions it feared the coup would have on Gaza. When the new regime in Egypt, led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, closed the Rafah border crossing and demolished 80 percent of the tunnels linking Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula, Hamas’s concerns proved to be well founded. In addition, the Egyptian regime launched an offensive media campaign against the Palestinians and struck another blow against Hamas with the establishment of a security buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza.
Regardless, a serious debate rose within Hamas in 2014 regarding the need to turn the page with Egypt in an attempt to alleviate the tension between the two sides, especially because the Palestinians are the major losers in the new equation. Hamas has made sure to tone down its statements against the Egyptian army; after all, Egypt is its only source of food and water, which makes it imperative to search for new ways to restore bilateral relations.
During the recent war in Gaza, and in spite of the unsympathetic Egyptian position, Hamas chose to normalize its relations with Cairo so as to overcome the crisis that had resulted from the coup against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is based on Hamas’s firm belief, especially in Gaza, that it can only escape its current state of isolation through the Egyptian gate.
Hamas and Dialogue With the West
In the early stages of the Arab Spring, Hamas thought that the European Union or the United States would be compelled to negotiate with it after years of listing the group as a terrorist organization. The rounds of dialogue, held mostly in secret in Western European or Middle Eastern capitals between leaders of Hamas or those close to them and Western figures, were in fact a reflection of the growing popular support the movement was able to achieve despite its alienation.
The internal discussions regarding the intermittent dialogue with the West suggest an increased recognition by Hamas of the need to engage in a dialogue with international powers. Such dialogue must, however, take into consideration the growing power of the movement, which has managed to attract international media and political attention and requires an appropriate response; the strong presence of Hamas in the Palestinian arena; and Hamas’s military performance against Israel. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the official relationship between Hamas and Europe has progressively improved while its relationship with the United States has rapidly declined.
Hamas is going through a difficult transformation on various levels, and it might need some time to recover its stability. Meanwhile, a number of internal, regional, and international developments must be taken into account:
- The results of the recent Israeli war against Gaza, with respect to the ceasefire.
- The sustainability of the reconciliation agreement between the PLO and Hamas, with Hamas ceding control of the Gaza Strip.
- The potential for normalizing political and security relations with Egypt.
- The effect of the agreement between Iran and the West on Iranian-Hamas ties.
Until all of these issues are settled, Hamas is expected to maintain its crisis management position based on stalling and waiting for a clearer regional picture to emerge.
Adnan Abu Amer is head of the political science department at Ummah University in Gaza.