The growing split that has been emerging within the leadership of Hamas has exploded into a bitter public feud. It was prompted an agreement reached last week in Qatar between the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. According to the deal, Abbas would take on the additional role of prime minister until elections are held later this year.
Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the divergence of interests between Hamas’ leadership in Gaza and its leadership abroad has been steadily intensifying. External leaders, Meshaal in particular, have come under increasing pressure to adapt to regional transformations, particularly the growing sectarian split in the Middle East.
It has become impossible for Hamas to remain friendly with Sunni Arab governments and Islamist movements while being simultaneously allied to Syria and Iran. The days in which the mythology of an “axis of resistance” could rationalize a Sunni Islamist movement being part of an Iranian-led—essentially Shia—alliance are long gone. Hamas leaders proved unable to side with Bashar al-Assad while their colleagues in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are a key component in the uprising against his regime. No Hamas official remains in the movement’s Damascus headquarters.
The external Hamas leadership has a branding and identity crisis, and needs desperately to find new patrons and headquarters, and a new international political and strategic profile. Hence Meshaal has been intensively courting Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, among others, seeking alternative sources of support and a new regional orientation.
The Gaza leadership does not share much of this crisis. Their rule is effectively unchallenged, and they continue to draw on various sources of income. From their perspective, there is no immediate need for a major reorientation. They argue that sooner rather than later their fellow Islamists will gain unchallenged power in Egypt and other key Arab states, and that it makes no sense to compromise with Abbas or anyone else at this stage. This is a gamble the external leadership cannot afford.
Many Gaza leaders clearly think the external leadership is making momentous decisions for its own purposes, but at their political expense. Resentment has boiled over. Already, last year a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, was disciplined for insisting that the primary leadership of Hamas was the one in Gaza. That proved to be a foretaste of the current crisis.
The “Change and Reform” bloc in Gaza, which includes Zahhar and the de facto prime minister, Ismail Haniyyeh, immediately reacted to the agreement with Abbas by issuing a blistering “legal memorandum.” The document laid out detailed and categorical objections to the accord, declaring it illegal. Zahhar, speaking on behalf of many and openly attacking Meshaal, said that “no one in the organization had been consulted,” and described the deal as “a mistake” which “could not be implemented” and “a real crisis.”
Meanwhile, Haniyyeh visited several Gulf states, and more importantly Iran, to shore up Iranian support, despite the dispute over the Assad regime. If the Gaza leadership is to mount an effective pushback against this new initiative, which enjoys Arab Gulf backing, it is going to require significant support from Iran. The Iranians might have incentives to continue to fund Hamas in Gaza to try to sabotage the Arab-led Palestinian reconciliation agreement, and to retain Hamas as a potential chit in the face of a possible Israeli or American attack on its nuclear facilities.
How the crisis in Hamas develops depends on several factors. A close ally of Meshaal, Ahmed Youssef, has implied that Qatar promised strong financial backing in return for the agreement. If that is delivered, especially if it is augmented by aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it will require a great deal of Iranian and other leverage for the Gaza-based leaders to prevail.
The position of the Hamas paramilitary Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades will also be crucial. Its leaders, Ahmed Jabari and Marwan Issa, have traditionally deferred to the leadership of the political bureau, and reportedly urged Meshaal not to step down as its chief. But they have also expressed dismay at some of Meshaal’s recent comments regarding the tactical value of nonviolent resistance.
The power struggle in Hamas reflects regional rivalries and strikingly divergent interests that have developed in the context of the Arab uprisings. But a complete split in the movement is highly improbable, and one side is going to prevail.
Whether the agreement with Abbas is implemented or not, Hamas will only go as far as it absolutely must to adjust to new realities. But relying on states like Qatar, Egypt and Jordan will necessitate very different behavior than being a client of Syria and Iran. And Hamas leaders counting on the Arab Spring turning into an “Islamic Awakening” that fulfills their ideological fantasies are spending more time reading coffee grounds than the emerging regional order.