Since the so-called Arab Spring gained momentum across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, two historically aligned Islamist resistance groups—the Shia Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Sunni Palestinian group Hamas—have had a more turbulent relationship. The short-lived rise of the Muslim Brotherhood under former president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt prompted Hamas to deepen ties with Cairo. This exacerbated a growing rift that separated Hamas from Hezbollah and their traditionally shared allies, Iran and Syria. Only recently have the two Islamist resistance organizations started to pursue rapprochement. This shift can be explained by Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s ambitions to maintain their positions of power in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, respectively.
Flexible Interpretations of Islamist Resistance
Hezbollah and Hamas both emerged during the 1980s, regard themselves as Islamist resistance organizations, and are long-time allies. Yet they have different religious orientations. Hezbollah’s political thought is closely aligned with the concept of wilayat al-faqih, or the guardianship of the jurist, developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. According to this concept, a leading Islamic jurist who enjoys absolute authority should act as supreme political leader of the Islamic state until the return of the twelfth imam, who is believed to be currently living in secret according to Twelver Shia doctrine. Hamas, meanwhile, is a Sunni organization. Its political thought is based on the views of the Muslim Brotherhood, which regards Islam as the solution to political and social problems. This is evident from the key slogan “Islam is the solution,” which the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has frequently used in campaigns.
Despite their differing religious views, Hamas and Hezbollah share certain beliefs. Specifically, they share an acceptance of ijtihad, the rational interpretation of the main Islamic sources, which helps make their political thinking adaptable. Thus, Hezbollah and Hamas do not apply the main Islamic sources in a literal or fixed sense, but reinterpret them. In addition, the concept of resistance has been central to both organizations’ identities since their inceptions.
Three factors were decisive in Hezbollah’s emergence. First, Lebanese Shia Muslims were marginalized economically and politically in post-independence Lebanon and were, therefore, responsive to the revolutionary ideas of Shia Islamism, which had been gaining ground in the country since the 1970s. Second, the 1979 Iranian revolution had a catalyzing effect on the evolution of Hezbollah, which Tehran has supported financially and militarily since the group’s early days. And third, Hezbollah emerged in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hamas, in turn, was founded in 1987, during the first Palestinian intifada, and shortly thereafter began portraying itself as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had established a broad network in Palestinian areas as early as the 1940s.
Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s respective understandings of resistance overlap in two ways: both groups directly relate resistance to the fight against Israel, and both organizations have a military wing that functions outside the confines of the Lebanese state for Hezbollah and the Palestinian National Authority for Hamas. Military resistance is the most important aspect of Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s resistance identity. Having and maintaining an independent military capability is a core objective for both groups because doing so allows them to maintain their positions of power. In addition, Hezbollah and Hamas claim to engage in nonmilitary resistance, which they frame as cultural or political resistance.
Despite the similarities in Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s understandings of resistance, there are differences in how the organizations interpret and apply this concept. These differences are linked less to their respective Shia or Sunni Islamist political ideologies than to the contexts the two groups operate in and the strategic interests they pursue. This dynamic has injected flexibility into their concepts of resistance, as both organizations have adjusted to changing environments while trying to legitimize their actions and maintain their independent armed status.
Hezbollah: Resistance Reinterpreted to Maintain Power
Since its founding, Hezbollah has redefined its understanding of resistance several times. Originally, the party described the aim of resistance to be the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation, which lasted from 1982 until 2000. When Israel unilaterally withdrew in May 2000, Hezbollah portrayed this development as a victory for the resistance and Lebanon as a whole.
Yet the Israeli withdrawal also threatened to render obsolete Hezbollah’s original justification for retaining its weapons. Consequently, Hezbollah insisted that Israel was continuing to occupy Lebanese land, but the Shia organization also expanded its definition of resistance to encompass deterrence of Israel, claiming that Hezbollah’s weapons would help keep Lebanon secure from a permanent Israeli threat. Hezbollah even managed to integrate this dual notion of resistance—liberation and deterrence—into the 2005 inaugural ministerial statement by the Lebanese government, the first government in which Hezbollah had ever participated.
In 2013, Hezbollah again expanded its understanding of resistance amid further political changes. By then, the party had officially entered the Syrian conflict in support of President Bashar al-Assad, a decision that did not fit well with Hezbollah’s long-standing claim to be fighting on behalf of the oppressed. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah reframed the organization’s conception of resistance to portray Hezbollah’s military operations as a fight against the threat of Salafi jihadists. To that end, he claimed the party’s engagement in Syria would reinforce Lebanon’s stability.
By reinterpreting resistance according to changing circumstances, Hezbollah has managed to retain some room to maneuver. The organization has adapted to new threats so as to legitimize its military agenda with its own base, as well as with other groups in Lebanon—an important step in a divided society. In addition, Hezbollah’s dynamic reinterpretation of resistance has allowed the group to retain its military wing and, thus, the power it wields in Lebanon.
Hamas: Resistance as a Conflict Management Strategy
Hamas has not changed its main conception of resistance much since its establishment in 1987. However, like Hezbollah, Hamas has used the idea of resistance flexibly. The organization has emphasized or deemphasized resistance depending on the situation, especially at critical junctures, such as during Palestinian elections, when Hamas took over governing responsibilities, and in the group’s attempts to reconcile with its rival, the secular organization Fatah. (Fatah controls the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and recognized Israel in 1993 in the context of the Oslo Accords.)
A few specific examples are worth highlighting. References to resistance were largely missing from Hamas’s political platform for the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. During the electoral campaign, Hamas was seeking to appeal to a wide range of voters from different political camps in the Palestinian territories, voters who did not all support the military struggle against Israel.
By contrast, Hamas employed the resistance concept very differently after the organization militarily took over Gaza in 2007. The group institutionalized resistance in the territory’s political structures. Its armed wing, the Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, became responsible for guaranteeing the external stability of Gaza’s political order against both Israel and Fatah, as well as internal stability in the face of violent Salafi groups. The Hamas government in Gaza understands the difficulty of being both a government and a resistance movement. Accordingly, Hamas has differentiated between what it calls tactical and strategic resistance. While Hamas tactically accepts the premise of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, strategically the group still aims to liberate all of pre-1948 Palestine. This distinction between tactics and strategy enables Hamas to manage the tensions inherent to its dual role in Gaza.
In the context of adapting its conception of resistance to different situations, Hamas also has introduced the concept of popular resistance. This idea was first raised in 2011, following reconciliation talks with Fatah, by Khaled Meshaal, who was then head of Hamas’s political bureau. For Meshaal, popular resistance meant nonviolent civil unrest directed against Israel; the popular dimension of this approach was linked to the demonstrations taking place throughout the Arab world at the time. This position was meant to display Hamas’s willingness to compromise with Fatah, which had pursued diplomacy instead of armed resistance. In early 2018, in conjunction with the Great March of Return in Gaza, initiated by Palestinian civil society actors, Hamas has revived the idea of popular resistance. Supporters of this initiative have demanded a Palestinian return to the territories of 1948. Hamas has prominently called on Palestinians to join this movement peacefully.
In contrast to the concept of popular resistance, Hamas’s 2017 “Document of General Principles and Policies”—the first political document the organization has published since its 1988 covenant—underscores that armed resistance remains the group’s main focus. At the same time, the document explains that escalating or deescalating resistance is part of a strategy of managing conflict. Armed resistance constitutes the principal part of Hamas’s approach, but when other forms of resistance, such as popular resistance, help strengthen the organization’s position in the Palestinian territories or abroad, Hamas emphasizes them instead.
A Mutually Beneficial, Cross-Sectarian Alliance
Hezbollah and Hamas have long been close allies. Before the Arab uprisings in 2011, the two cooperated politically and militarily and were closely aligned with Iran and Syria. Historically, Hezbollah held the upper hand in the partnership, as it offered military training to Hamas combatants, made political recommendations to the organization, and encouraged Hezbollah-affiliated media platforms to support Hamas and the Palestinian cause. The two groups were so close that Hamas had offices and residences for several high-ranking officials in Beirut’s southern suburbs, an area known to be Hezbollah’s stronghold. Hezbollah’s influence over Hamas was mainly based on its closer relationship with Iran and its ability to serve as an important link between Hamas and Tehran.
Before 2011, Hezbollah and Hamas also cooperated in a broader alliance with Iran and Syria, the so-called axis of resistance. The axis of resistance was not based on sectarianism but derived from the members’ shared anti-Western and anti-Israeli orientations and their criticism of the U.S.-friendly alignment of certain Arab states. However, members of the axis of resistance were able to independently pursue their own objectives, as long as they adhered to the broader framework and direction of the alliance.
Both Hezbollah and Hamas were recipients of Iran’s military and financial aid. Iranian support became especially important for Hamas following the international economic embargo and political isolation imposed on the organization after its victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. This support became even more vital when Hamas militarily took over Gaza in 2007.
Hamas’s Break and Reconciliation With the Axis of Resistance
After the March 2011 Syrian uprising devolved into an all-out war between protestors and the regime, Hamas would eventually break with the Syrian leadership and the axis of resistance. The initial signs of a rift appeared in the first half of 2012, when Hamas started openly criticizing the Assad regime for its military repression of the Syrian opposition. When the conflict escalated, Hamas eventually moved its political bureau from Damascus (where it had been located since 1999) to Doha, Qatar. These decisions were contested within Hamas.1 The Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades were especially displeased about leaving Syria because the move prompted a sizable reduction in Iranian financial and military aid to Gaza and to the military wing itself.
Yet apart from the Assad regime’s violent response to the Syrian opposition, Hamas’s decision to break with Syria was mainly linked to regional developments, especially in Egypt. Ultimately, it was the rise of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that pushed Hamas to sever its relations with Syria and the rest of the axis of resistance. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas’s ideological parent organization, and Hamas believed it would strongly benefit politically and economically from the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Hamas hoped that a close alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood would increase its international legitimacy and end Gaza’s economic and political isolation. Hamas anticipated that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would be able to replace its former allies: Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
Following Hamas’s split with the axis of resistance, cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah reached its nadir. While low-level contacts continued, the two sides publically criticized each other for the breakup. Hamas-affiliated members of the Palestinian Legislative Council underscored that Hezbollah’s military support for the Assad regime had nothing to do with resistance, warning that the organization would lose credibility in the Arab world.2 Hezbollah, in turn, accused Hamas of betraying the cause of resistance against Israel and of moving too close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.3
Although the relationship worsened for a time, by the first half of 2017, ties between Hezbollah and Hamas had improved. Since then, leading officials from the two sides have met again, most notably on October 31, 2017, when Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah received the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut.
This reconciliation followed on the heels of Hamas’s rapprochement with Iran. The main reason for this change was that, in July 2013, then Egyptian president Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. This change of government was followed by a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which left Hamas with its back against the wall. Egypt closed its border with Gaza, making it very difficult for Hamas to manage the territory and provide for the needs of the Palestinians there, even though Hamas received financial support from Qatar. The Qataris have a pro–Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Hamas orientation and remained Hamas’s second-most-important sponsor (aside from Iran) in Gaza after 2006.
It was changes in Hamas’s political leadership in 2017 that allowed the organization to revive its relationship with Iran. First, in February 2017, Yahya Sinwar was elected the new head of Hamas’s political leadership in Gaza. Sinwar is a founder of the organization’s military wing and enjoys significant support within its ranks. Considered a hardliner, he rejects the prospect of a two-state solution with Israel. Sinwar spent more than twenty years in Israeli prisons before being released under a 2011 prisoner deal. The United States listed him as a specially designated global terrorist in 2015. Sinwar’s close ties to the Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades made it easier for Hamas to mend fences with the Iranians.
Second, in May 2017, Ismail Haniyeh was elected the new head of Hamas’s political bureau. He replaced longtime leader Khaled Meshaal, who was seen as a moderate. Following Haniyeh’s election, the political bureau, which traditionally had been located outside the Palestinian territories, was moved from Qatar to Gaza. And in October 2017, Saleh al-Arouri, a co-founder of Hamas’s military wing, was elected deputy head of the political bureau. All these changes and the political bureau’s relocation allowed the Hamas faction in Gaza, especially the Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, to increase its power within the organization, further facilitating renewed ties with Iran.
For its own part, Tehran had two main motivations for reestablishing its ties with Hamas. First, by supporting Hamas, Iran can increase its power and influence in the Palestinian territories—next door to its archenemy, Israel, whose right to exist Iran rejects. Second, a constructive relationship with Hamas helps Tehran improve its geopolitical influence vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in the Middle East more broadly.
Coincidentally, soon after Hamas instituted some of these leadership changes, the Qatar crisis broke out on June 5, 2017. This gave Hamas further reason to try to bridge the divide with its erstwhile partners. Under pressure to end their support for Hamas, the Qataris significantly reduced their financial assistance to the organization, although they did not halt such support completely. This setback gave momentum to Hamas members who had always advocated maintaining ties with Iran. By the end of August 2017, Sinwar announced that the relationship between Hamas’s military wing and Iran had been restored. The visit to Tehran by a high-ranking Hamas delegation led by the recently elected Arouri on October 20, 2017, formally marked the reconciliation.
The fact that Hamas managed to renew its connection with Iran impacted its relationship with Hezbollah. Officials from the two groups began meeting again, , including the aforementioned meeting between Nasrallah and Arouri in Beirut in October 2017. The following day, Haniyeh participated in the second International Conference of Resistance Scholars held in Beirut. More than 200 people from over eighty countries attended, including Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qassem.
The Benefits of Reconciliation
The reconciliation between Hezbollah and Hamas offers benefits to both organizations, particularly the latter. Renewed ties have provided Hamas with a way to reduce its isolation and the fallout of its fateful decision to side with the Muslim Brotherhood instead of the axis of resistance. The resumption of cordial relations may also help alleviate the dire humanitarian and economic conditions in Gaza. Yet despite the benefits of such rapprochement, Hamas has learned from its past mistakes and now is trying to avoid becoming too dependent on any single partner again. That is why, even as it has revived ties with Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas has also recently improved its relations with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Hezbollah has benefited from reconciling with Hamas as well. In recent years, Hezbollah lost popularity and legitimacy in the Arab world. A July 2014 Pew Research Center poll revealed that the share of respondents from around the region who hold unfavorable views of Hezbollah increased markedly between 2007 and 2014—from 41 to 83 percent in Egypt, from 44 to 81 percent in Jordan, and from 20 to 55 percent in the Palestinian territories. Hezbollah’s military engagement in Syria probably contributed to its declining reputation.
The same Pew poll revealed that Hamas’s own popularity in the Middle East and North Africa decreased between 2013 and 2014. Despite this potential complication, Hezbollah hopes that reconciliation with Hamas may give it greater legitimacy among Arabs beyond Lebanon’s Shia community, because Hamas shares Sunni roots with a majority of Arabs and because the Palestinian cause continues to enjoy considerable support across the Middle East. Hezbollah anticipates that moving closer toward the Sunni Hamas may help the Shia organization get rid of the sectarian image it has suffered from since deciding to militarily support the Alawite Assad regime in Syria.
Yet Hamas will likely try to avoid becoming as close to Hezbollah and Iran as it was before 2011. Especially over the last year, Hamas has tried to remain more independent by building or maintaining ties with different (sometimes even antagonist) states, such as Iran, the UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Algeria, and Malaysia. Significantly, Yahya Sinwar, who has long been considered to have a pro-Iran orientation, is the one who has pragmatically fostered ties with Egypt and the UAE. The Hezbollah-Hamas relationship will undoubtedly remain important to both parties, but Hamas likely will simultaneously continue seeking to retain at least some room to maneuver somewhat independently.
Maren Koss is a research fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. She is the author of Resistance, Power, and Conceptions of Political Order in Islamist Organizations: Comparing Hezbollah and Hamas (Routledge, 2018).
1 Author interview with Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council member, the West Bank, August 25, 2013.
2 Author interview with Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council member, the West Bank, August 28, 2013.
3 Author interview with a leading pro-Hezbollah Lebanese journalist, Beirut, May 30, 2013.