Hamas is on the move, both literally and figuratively, but how far it
can and will go very much remains to be determined.
Hamas is in an impossible position, given the regional realignments
following from the Arab uprisings, and is frantically trying to adjust
without paying too high a price.
For more than a decade, Hamas’ strategy was based on being
simultaneously allied with both the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network
and the, essentially, Shiite, Iranian-led alliance. This incongruous
ideological contortion was made possible by a narrative embraced by
both of these broader anti-status quo alignments: that the Middle East
was the site of a trans-historic battle between a “culture of
resistance” and a “culture of accommodation.”
This narrative has collapsed completely, and is rapidly being replaced
by a new sectarian order pitting Sunni actors, including both Arab
governments and Islamists, as well as Turkey, against what is now
perceived as the non- or even anti-Sunni alliance led by Iran. This
realignment has been most starkly illustrated in Syria, whose
pro-Iranian government is now supported entirely by non-Sunni forces
in the Middle East and opposed by virtually all Sunni ones.
Hamas can no longer have a foot in each of these camps when they are
increasingly at odds, often in existential ways. The movement’s
political bureau cannot long remain based in Damascus since the Syrian
Muslim Brotherhood is a core part of the uprising trying to overthrow
the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The break with Assad also means a break
Hamas needs not only a new home but also new sponsors and a new
regional profile, since the strategic landscape in which it operates
has shifted so dramatically.
Literally on the move, its de facto “prime minister” in Gaza, Ismail
Haniyyeh, is planning a tour of Arab states, beginning with Qatar and
possibly including Turkey. Khaled Meshaal, who heads Hamas’ political
bureau, meanwhile, has been trying to engineer a reconciliation with
Jordan, and has been planning a trip there that has yet to happen.
Both sides insist this has not been canceled.
Figuratively on the move, Meshaal, according to Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed that resistance to occupation must be
nonviolent and must seek to create a Palestinian state based on the
1967 borders. A spokesman for Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to
confirm these commitments, but reiterated that Hamas would not
This apparently difficult readjustment has exposed latent tensions
within Hamas. The organization is divided along multiple axes, but the
most obvious is the division between many in the leadership in Gaza,
which is entrenched in power and only stands to lose from any changes,
and the external leadership, which has no choice but to urgently find
new headquarters and patrons.
This squabble has been most publicly expressed in an ongoing feud
between Meshaal and a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar. In
May, Zahhar was harshly critical of Meshaal for recognizing the
authority of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization to
negotiate with Israel. Worse still, he questioned the authority of the
political bureau itself, claiming, “the leadership is here [in Gaza],
and the part that is abroad is just a part of that.”
However, Meshaal reportedly retains the support of key Hamas leaders,
including Ahmed Jabari, the head of its paramilitary Ezzedine
al-Qassam brigades. The group reportedly imposed “severe disciplinary
measures” against Zahhar in response to his challenge to the authority
of Meshaal and the political bureau.
The big question is whether Hamas’ need to adjust to the changing Arab
political order will compel the movement to moderate its positions.
Probably not if Hamas can help it, for it remains locked in a
long-term power struggle with Fatah over leadership of the Palestinian
national movement. Yet its ability to remain a viable contender for
such leadership cannot be based on Islamist social conservatism alone.
If it cannot outbid the PLO when it comes to the struggle with Israel,
it’s hard to see what its broad appeal will be.
Hamas is hoping that the Arab uprisings will strengthen its hand by
bringing its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in numerous Arab
states. It has reportedly recently formally joined an international
umbrella group of the Brotherhood movement. But as it has to abandon
the Iranian-Syrian alliance and explore deeper relations with Qatar,
Egypt and even Jordan, Hamas will be dealing with states that, at
least for now, will not be willing to take responsibility for the
movement’s traditional policies and actions.
The outcome of the Arab uprisings and realignment writ large will
probably determine the future of Hamas. Fatah, too, will have to
adjust to the emerging strategic and political environment. These new
regional realities will probably affect the future of both
organizations more than anything the Palestinian groups decide
independently or between themselves.