Khaled Hroub is professor in residence in the faculty of liberal arts at Northwestern University in Qatar. His focus is Middle Eastern politics, with a particular interest in Islam and politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Arab media studies. Hroub taught modern Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University, and was affiliated with the Center of Islamic Studies of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, where he founded and directed the Cambridge Arab Media Project until 2012. He is the author of Hamas: A Beginners Guide (2006 and 2010) and Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), among other books. Diwan interviewed him in mid-July to get his views on Hamas, at a time when the movement’s leaders have expressed confidence in pursuing armed resistance against Israel, and appear to be building up a military capacity in refugee camps in Lebanon.
Michael Young: There is a sense among Hamas leaders that time is playing in favor of their movement, given the deterioration of the Palestinian Authority and the eroded legitimacy of President Mahmoud Abbas. What is your assessment of this optimism, and do you think Hamas has the support to lead a revived resistance effort against the Israeli occupation?
Khaled Hroub: Within a wider timeframe, a very interesting observation that could be made of Hamas’ performance is that while the influence of the movement continues to expand, Hamas has failed to assume national leadership despite being 35 years old. It has been steadily and solidly amassing power and legitimacy since its emergence during the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987–1993. It gained impressive momentum during the second Intifada of 2000–2004. The failure of the Oslo Accords to bring about a Palestinian state by 1999 further empowered Hamas and its “project of resistance.” Hamas’ 2006 election victory and its seizure of the Gaza Strip the following year was a pinnacle of sorts in the sustained rise of Hamas. This rise is also visible in the West Bank and in Palestinian communities and refugee camps outside Palestine. Although there have always been setbacks, the general trend has been of a continuous growth of influence among Palestinians and in the realm of diplomacy and foreign relations with states and nonstate actors. This sustained rise and accumulation of political capital is the source of Hamas’ confidence in the fact that time is playing in the movement’s favor.
However, as I said earlier, this has fallen short of gaining the national leadership of the Palestinians. The reasons for this are many, but one can at least point to the role of the main players in Palestine, namely Israel, the United States, and Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, all of which have firmly supported the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, against Hamas.
Another related reason comes from the dynamics of internal Palestinian politics and society. Hamas has had moderate success in “Palestinizing,” at the expense of “Islamizing,” itself. Despite declaring in its Document of General Principles and Policies of 2017 that it has no official connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement’s ideology and social and cultural conduct remain tied by religious considerations and are far from being inclusive. This has limited the spaces that Hamas can occupy and represent. A significant portion of Hamas’ popularity comes from Palestinian support for its resistance strategy, not its version of Islamist ideology. We are witnessing now the continuation of a years-long trend, characterized by a steady increase in influence but a failure of Hamas to translate its political and military capital into national leadership.
MY: What is the relationship between Iran and Hamas today, after tensions had risen during the Syrian uprising, when Hamas opposed the policies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime?
KH: I think this relationship has come full circle to what it was before the uprising. Iran and Hamas need each other at the present time, even more so given changing regional dynamics and evolving alliances, in particular those between Israel and some Arab countries. Both have moved beyond the bitterness of the past few years, when the relationship deteriorated during the Arab uprisings and Hamas decided to side with the Syrian people against the Assad regime. Back then, in 2011–2012, Hamas held high hopes for the rise of the Egyptian Islamists, thinking that having Egypt on its side would compensate for the loss of Syria and a weakened relationship with Iran. Those hopes were shattered just a year later when Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt was ended. After that, events in Egypt and in other Arab countries took a sharp turn against the uprisings and the Islamists, and Hamas leaders suffered a double loss, as they managed neither to have Egypt on their side, nor Iran and Syria.
What has made things even worse for the movement are the so-called Abraham Accords, through which Israel has become an ally of several Arab states, against a perceived Iranian threat. All this has pushed Hamas to rebuild its relationship with Iran, and soon maybe Syria. For Iran, restoring a relationship with Hamas and making its financial and military support public is vital for its regional expansion. Hamas checks two major boxes for Iran: It represents a link to Palestine, a cause that appeals to Arabs and Muslims; and Hamas is a powerful and popular Sunni movement that helps to show that Iran’s support is not limited to Shia parties and causes. Backing Hamas also allows Iran to bolster its rhetoric that it leads a “resistance axis,” making Hamas an integral part of Iranian strategy. In line with this strategy, Iran has maintained its military support for Hamas during the several Gaza wars and has seemingly pressured the latter to publicly thank Tehran for its support, which Hamas has acknowledged frequently.
MY: In a recent interview with the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, Khalil Hayyeh, whose in charge of Hamas’ Arab and Islamic relations, noted that after Mahmoud Abbas postponed Palestinian legislative elections in April 2021, Hamas concluded that efforts to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority were no longer possible, which led it to return to a “resistance project.” What was behind this shift?
KH: Two major driving factors were behind it. The first is the impasse that any Palestinian reconciliation faces, for which Hamas holds Mahmoud Abbas responsible. Abbas has effectively blocked any reform of Palestinian politics that would allow Hamas, or any other Palestinian party for that matter, to share power. Even within his own Fatah movement, Abbas is seen as controlling all aspects of power. For years, he has been ignoring calls for reforming the PLO, to include Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement. He has also turned his back on calls for convening a General Conference of Fatah, his own party, which is facing mounting internal and external challenges. The small window of hope that was offered by scheduled elections last year was also shut because Abbas feared that Hamas might emerge as the biggest winner. With all venues for inclusion blocked, Hamas seems to have moved on, strategically and diplomatically.
The second factor is the outcome of Hamas’ military engagement in May 2021, which Hamas called “Sword of Jerusalem.” After the frequent Israeli and settler attacks on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem and incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Hamas fired its rockets at Israeli cities and changed the course of events, at least temporarily. That was the first rocket war in which Hamas engaged with Israel, in the name of Jerusalem, and many Palestinians thought that Hamas alone could stop Israeli measures. Consequently, this boosted Hamas’ confidence and popularity. It claimed that it had defended Al-Aqsa and that while Israel doesn’t care about the Palestinian Authority, it did take into considerable account Hamas’ threats and decisions.
Hamas has hardened its tone against Israel and has started to call for a resistance project that covers all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, believing that this enjoys popular support. The latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), from March 2022, confirms Hamas’ assessment of its power and popularity, with 54 percent of respondents saying that they would vote for Ismail Haniyyeh as president, against 39 percent for Mahmoud Abbas, if elections were held then, Also, 31 percent of those surveyed thought that Hamas was “more deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people,” compared to 29 percent who thought Fatah should be the Palestinian representative. In an earlier poll by PSR in December 2020, 78 percent of respondents said they wanted Abbas to resign.
MY: While Hamas has said it does not want to be involved in a struggle for leadership once Abbas leaves the scene, the movement believes that the United States and Israel favor Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Authority of Civil Affairs. Given Sheikh’s central role in coordinating with the Israelis, isn’t a leadership struggle inevitable?
KH: It is difficult to envisage the direct engagement of Hamas in a possible post-Abbas leadership struggle. This would be an internal Fatah affair in the first place, and I think Hamas will be sitting on the fence watching carefully. The chances of Hussein al-Sheikh are quite high as he is fully backed by Israel and the United States. For me, Abbas has been busy during the last year ensuring the continuation of the status quo. This has involved deep security coordination with Israel against Hamas in the West Bank, allowing some sort of “invisible Israeli hand” at the heart of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO leadership.
On his own, Abbas also took several major and controversial decisions involving the Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO, as well as the PLO’s Central Council, the PLO’s new members, and the Fatah Central Committee, exploiting Fatah’s fear of Hamas’ rise in the West Bank. Opposition to his decisions was weak, because many Fatah leaders prioritized unity of the movement over internal differences. However, there are competing factions within Fatah and most of them disagree with Sheikh, or at least do not think much of him. Maybe Hamas would just allow Fatah’s differences to come to the surface and take its time to prepare for its next move in the West Bank or at the national level.
MY: There have been reports that Hamas is building up a military presence in Lebanon, with help from Hezbollah. What is behind this, and do you see this as part of Hamas’ efforts to play an increasingly influential role in the Palestinian refugee camps, where Fatah is dominant?
KH: This is not unexpected for me. Hamas feels that it has the right to do what others, mainly Fatah, have been doing in Lebanon or anywhere else. I think Hamas’ moves in the Palestinian refugee camps are part of a broader strategy of strengthening its presence within Palestinian communities outside Palestine, as part of an effort to ultimately lead these communities. Hamas’ strategy is to gain the leadership of the Palestinian people through all the means possible. Within the context of refugee camps in Lebanon, which are known to be heavily armed, it seems that Hamas is building up its military power. Fatah and other Palestinian factions dominate the refugees by various, primarily military, means. Hamas thinks the same way. You can run charities, organize social networks, and build infrastructures of support, but all this would be at risk if it is not protected by force. The bitter example for Hamas is its presence in the West Bank, where almost all aspects of its popularity, earned with much effort, produced few political results because of the movement’s military weakness there.
There is also the regional aspect of Hamas’ increasing presence in Lebanon, which relates to wider politics including Iran’s “axis of resistance.” Securing a stronger Hamas in the refugee camps would help to strengthen Iran’s and Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon. As the air is now filled with increasing mutual threats between Israel and Iran, a military confrontation is a real possibility. Depending on the scale of such a confrontation, and whether it would include Lebanon, a stronger Hamas military presence in Lebanon seems to be a must for the movement.