Maren Koss is a research fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. Her research focuses on political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the Gulf, in addition to transnational networks in political Islam. She has special expertise in the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and is the author of Resistance, Power and Conceptions of Political Order in Islamist Organizations—Comparing Hezbollah and Hamas (Routledge, 2018). She recently wrote an article for Carnegie on the same topic, titled “Flexible Resistance: How Hezbollah and Hamas Are Mending Ties.” It is to discuss her article, and more broadly the relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas, that Diwan interviewed Koss in late July.
Michael Young: You recently published an article with Carnegie titled “Flexible Resistance: How Hezbollah and Hamas Are Mending Ties.” What do you argue in your article, and why is it important?
Maren Koss: In the article I demonstrate how the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas flexibly interpret and apply their ideological core concept of resistance to achieve their main strategic objective, namely securing their positions of power in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. I argue that the flexible application of resistance has allowed the two to retain their military capabilities outside the confines of the Lebanese state or the Palestinian National Authority and to legitimize their political and military actions in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, thereby maintaining their power.
In the second part of the article I analyze the changing relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas in recent years in the context of both organizations’ resistance ideology and their Islamist political thought. Hezbollah and Hamas were close allies before the Arab uprisings began in 2011, but parted ways over Hamas’ decision to leave the non-sectarian, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli Axis of Resistance, until then consisting of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas itself. The Palestinian organization had started to criticize President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of the opposition in Syria and moved its Political Bureau from Damascus to Doha. It also decided to turn to Egypt’s then-president Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization. This was a decision it would regret after Morsi’s ouster, and that of the Brotherhood, in 2013. Only recently have Hezbollah and Hamas resumed ties.
If one wants to assess Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ behavior, it is important to understand their overall actions in the changing context of the Middle East by taking a closer look at their core concept of resistance and its linkages with the power aspirations of both organizations. This helps more than trying to evaluate Hezbollah and Hamas according to narrow categories such as “radical” and “moderate” or “democratic” and “undemocratic.”
MY: In what ways are Hezbollah and Hamas similar, or different?
MK: Both emerged as Islamist resistance organizations during the 1980s. Both have religious, social, political, and military wings, and both fight against Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas engage in national politics in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories respectively, and are at the same time listed as terrorist organizations in the West and in Israel (the European Union put the military wing of Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations, but not its political wing).
The most apparent difference between Hezbollah and Hamas is their religious orientation. Hezbollah is a Shi‘a Islamist organization and adheres to the concept of wilayat al-faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist) introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hamas, in contrast, is a Sunni organization and shares the mindset of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this theological difference between Hezbollah and Hamas, the implications for politics are less salient, as the Islamist political thought of each organization provides a frame of reference, but is not a decisive factor in the organization’s political actions. Both Hezbollah and Hamas do not apply the main Islamic sources in a literal sense, but rationally reinterpret them in the context of the changing circumstances they are facing.
Hezbollah and Hamas also differ in their organizational structure. Hezbollah has a unified leadership structure, which is de jure headed by a Shura Council, the organization’s decisionmaking body. De facto, however, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general, has become the key figure in Hezbollah’s decisionmaking processes. The organization is centered around his personality and controversial internal discussions within Hezbollah are not visible to outsiders.
Things are different in Hamas’ case. The Palestinian organization has a diversified leadership structure. The main bodies are the Shura Council, located inside the Palestinian Territories, and the Political Bureau, traditionally located outside the territories but which was transferred to Gaza in 2017. In the case of Hamas, internal discussions in the past, sometimes even contradictory statements, have been visible to outside observers. This cannot be explained only by Hamas’ diversified leadership structure but also by the fact that Hamas leaders and members are spread between different environments, ranging from Israeli prisons to the Palestinian Territories to foreign countries such as Jordan or Lebanon.
MY: One point you stress is that both organizations have a flexible interpretation of resistance. Can you explain what you mean and illustrate in what ways this has impacted on their behavior?
MK: For both Hezbollah and Hamas military resistance is the most important aspect of their understanding of resistance and it is directly linked to their armed wings. At the same time, Hezbollah and Hamas flexibly apply their understanding of resistance to legitimize their actions and to maintain their position of power—always depending on the specific circumstances with which they have to deal.
Hezbollah has redefined its understanding of resistance three times since its inception. First, it argued that the main aim of the resistance was the liberation of southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupation. When Israel withdrew in 2000, Hezbollah, as a resistance organization, was in danger of losing its reason to exist and its armed status. Thus, it added a second meaning to its understanding of resistance: deterrence. It argued that it still needed its weapons because Israel continued to occupy Lebanese land and these weapons were required to deter Israel and help secure Lebanon’s southern borders from the Israeli threat. In 2013, Hezbollah again expanded its understanding of resistance. Nasrallah argued that Hezbollah had entered the Syrian conflict on the side of the Assad regime to secure Lebanon from the jihadi threat present in Syria.
Hamas has not changed its understanding of resistance much. However, it has flexibly strengthened or weakened specific parts of it, framing this as a strategy of conflict management. While military resistance constitutes the most important part of Hamas’ concept of resistance, as I noted earlier, when needed it deemphasizes this. We can find examples of this in electoral campaigns, when Hamas almost avoids referring to the concept of resistance at all, because it seeks to appeal to a broader Palestinian electorate. Hamas has also introduced what it calls popular resistance—peaceful demonstrations directed against Israel. The so-called Great March of Return of 2018 provides an example of how Hamas has adopted this approach to improve its international legitimacy.
MY: After a rupture over the war in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas have since reconciled. Why did they do so, how solid is this reconciliation, and how has it been manifested lately?
MK: Hezbollah and Hamas both benefit from this reconciliation, which has led to several meetings between high-ranking officials from both organizations since 2017. In Hamas’ case, the reconciliation with Hezbollah facilitates the Palestinian organization’s rapprochement with Iran. Hezbollah can serve as a link to Tehran for Hamas. Hamas has been in need of Iranian support as it found itself with its back to the wall after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, and even more so after Qatar, a Hamas sponsor, reduced its financial support for Gaza following the Qatar crisis, which began in June 2017.
By reconciling with Hamas, in turn, Hezbollah hopes to get rid of the sectarian stigma from which it has increasingly suffered since it militarily entered the Syrian conflict on the side of the Assad regime. Hamas is a Palestinian organization and the Palestinian cause transcends sectarian boundaries and is important to most people in the Islamic world. Thus, Hezbollah hopes that the reconciliation with Hamas will improve its image in Lebanon and abroad.
To be sure, in the future the relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas will remain important. However, Hamas is currently pursuing a strategy of diversification. It is relying on diverse actors, such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, Algeria, and Malaysia. This hedging strategy means that Hamas will not become too dependent on any one actor anymore, in that way allowing it to retain a margin of maneuver.
MY: What do you see as the future for both Hezbollah and Hamas in light of a possible Palestinian-Israeli, or even Arab-Israeli, peace plan being prepared by the Trump administration?
MK: The Palestinian-Israeli peace plan that is being finalized by the Trump administration would have a greater impact on Hamas than on Hezbollah. Everything we know so far from different media reports about the plan, which was rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, suggests it will seek to increase the division between the West Bank and Gaza and will almost separate Gaza from any future Palestinian territory. Media reports have also revealed that the U.S. initiative may seek to economically strengthen Gaza by outlining close economic cooperation between Gaza and the Sinai and may invite certain Arab states to invest in large-scale economic projects in Gaza.
Although high-ranking Hamas officials such as ‘Izzat al-Rishaq, a Political Bureau member, have stressed that Hamas stands with the Palestinian National Authority against the Trump initiative, in the end Trump’s plans might play into Hamas’ hands. If Fatah and Hamas do not manage to reconcile and the Trump administration succeeds in improving humanitarian and economic conditions in Gaza, Hamas might be able to strengthen its rule there.