The recent exchange of attacks between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip is unlikely to lead to a broader conflict, but it helps illuminate some of the dramatic changes happening within Hamas. It is yet another indication of the increasing willingness of Hamas factions in Gaza to resume not only countenancing but participating in rocket attacks against Israel. This, in turn, reflects the increasing influence and independence of more militant elements within the organization and their strategy for trying to wrest control of Hamas away from externally-based leaders.
Hamas acknowledges that it has coordinated the rocket responses to Israeli attacks with its long-standing Gaza rival, Islamic Jihad. Gaza-based Hamas factions have worked diligently in recent months to repair their often-strained relations with Islamic Jihad, participating in its recent anniversary celebrations and making repeated declarations of common cause.
The power struggle is based on competing interests. The power and influence of the externally-based Politburo, which has traditionally dominated Hamas’ decision-making, has been waning badly since its leaders had to abandon their headquarters in Syria. The rift with Syria, and by extension Iran, was underlined recently by unprecedented attacks against Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal by Syrian state media, which accused him of being, among other things, “a Zionist agent.”
Meshaal has reportedly made it clear that he intends to resign as head of the Politburo, even though he probably still remains its single most influential member. But his decision to step aside reflects not only an intensifying power struggle between Gaza-based and external Hamas leaders, but also the growing crisis within the Politburo itself.
The external leadership has been unable to secure a stable, centralized base to replace Damascus, meaning that its members are scattered throughout the Middle East. This renders them less effective in every sense, particularly since under such circumstances they will inevitably develop distinct incentive structures based on relationships with different patrons that have varying interests.
Meshaal has been concentrating on developing Hamas’ relationship with Qatar. And Doha has attempted to cement its bid to become the organization’s new primary patron, literally by announcing millions of dollars in reconstruction efforts in Gaza, and politically by announcing that it would open the first formal foreign diplomatic mission in the territory.
But Qatar’s soft power, based almost entirely on financial clout, is proving no match for Egypt’s hard power vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip. Hamas’ hopes to benefit from the “Arab Spring” are still largely based on the conviction that in the long run it will enjoy a better relationship with a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt. In reality, however, the new government of Mohammed Morsi has done nothing to aid Hamas or Gaza, and instead has tightened restrictions on the border and engaged in a campaign to destroy smuggling tunnels that has damaged Gaza’s economy and undermined some of Hamas’ most lucrative enterprises.
There has been such little progress with Egypt that Hamas has been reduced to ridiculous social campaigns in Gaza, such as arresting teenagers with hip hop-style baggy pants and prominent underwear, and extending its campaign against motorcycles in general and especially women riding on them. When political organizations can’t achieve anything practical, crudely playing to the base is an appealing prospect. But this hasn’t helped Hamas’ extremely weak popularity with Palestinians in Gaza or in general.
It’s ironically appropriate that Meshaal’s apparent valedictory is to be whooped out of the “culture of resistance” by the very voices, such as official Syrian propaganda, that once trumpeted him as one of its most important leaders. Speculation suggests that the leadership battle to replace him will largely be fought between his longtime deputy and rival, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and his preferred successor, Saleh Al-Aruri. Aruri, a founder of Hamas’ paramilitary wing, is based in Turkey and would represent a last-ditch effort by Meshaal’s faction to retain control.
Abu Marzouk’s main appeal is that he is based in Cairo and has been focusing on developing relations with the new Egyptian government on which so much of what does and doesn’t happen in Gaza will be based. If he does win, Hamas’s external leaders will be doubling down on their bet that an Islamist-dominated Egypt will ultimately prove the group’s salvation, even though there is no indication of this whatsoever to date.
There has also been speculation that Hamas’ most prominent Gaza-based leader, Ismail Hanniyeh, could also be a candidate for the post, but that seems unlikely at the moment. In the long run, however, a shift from domination of decision-making by externally-based leaders to those based in Gaza will be difficult to avoid. This trend likely means that a more militant, radical and strident strain within the organization will become increasingly influential and will recklessly use tensions with Israel, such as those that have erupted in recent days, to advance its interests.