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Hamas' Mission Is Evolving As Sands Shift in Mideast

“We will not be part in a war between Iran and Israel,” came the startling announcement from Hamas, the organization whose objective is to liberate all of historic Palestine via armed struggle. Is this the result of the collapse of the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas partnership, or of the Syrian revolt? Maybe both, writes Isam al Khafaji.

“We will not be part in a war between Iran and Israel.” The startling announcement came not from the moderate Jordanian monarchy, nor from the Palestinian authority whose aim is to liberate the territory under Israeli occupation since 1967, but from Hamas, the organization whose proclaimed objective is to liberate all of historic Palestine via armed struggle.

Could it be a direct consequence of the collapse of the quadruple axis of resistance comprised of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas? Or maybe the Syrian revolt was a powerful catalyst for the series of developments which were brewing beneath the surface to their climax?

It may be both.

A few months after the outbreak of the revolt, Hamas head Khaled Mishal was asked by a journalist about the departure of some of his lieutenants. “Do not make hasty judgments” was his reply. “Some of them were going for treatment abroad, others to take care of their children’s education.” By November, he himself had sealed the exodus: two training camps in Syria were closed as well as major Hamas offices there.

Where to? Mishal is sitting comfortably in Qatar and a toothless Mousa Abu Marzouq, nominally the second in the Hamas hierarchy, has bought an apartment in the posh Masr el Gedida suburb of Cairo. Mohammed Nazzal and Mohamed Nasr, two more prominent leaders, are in Amman after signing a pledge not to be involved in any political activity. Most surprisingly (if the reports are true), Imad al-Alami, the top military leader and member of the political bureau, is back in Gaza.

And here lies a clue to solving the mystery behind Hamas’ diametrical swing.

The historic reconciliation between Hamas and Jordan coming after more than a decade since the Mishal and Hamas cadres were expelled from the latter — including many who held Jordanian citizenship — had its repercussions. In November of last year [2011] Hamas formally joined the Muslim Brotherhood. This may seem a natural, even belated, move for an organization that has never denied its allegiance to the movement. Yet at closer scrutiny, Hamas is no longer a subsidiary branch of the Muslim Brothers in Bilad al Sham (Grand Syia), which is led by the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. Wisam Afifa, the chief editor of Al Risala, the official paper of Hamas, explained that this organizational shift “came after discussions that have been taking place for more than a year and a half and were not a response to the demands of anyone or related to the recent changes in the region.” Rather, it was “due to its expansion and its need to become an independent movement.” Yet the obvious explanation is that this move was the monarchy’s price in exchange for a reconciliation that threatens to embolden its own Brothers.

Soon after that, Khaled Mishal came in with a no less groundbreaking statement: Hamas has chosen the path of “popular resistance” to pursue its goals. A mercurial statement indeed, but in the Palestinian context, it has only one connotation: we have abandoned armed struggle. This could not, and did not, pass without fierce resistance from within the movement. Hardcore leaders such as the influential Mahmoud al-Zahhar claimed that the declaration was “misinterpreted” and went on to say that Hamas is only the armed wing of the Palestinian Muslim Brothers, meaning that it can make its own decisions irrespective of the mother organization, just like the defunct Al-Asifa, which was the armed wing of Fatah.

Confidential sources, however, told this writer that Hamas opponents were terrified by the prospect of the movement turning into a political party, and that the rift may deepen between exiles and those in Gaza and the West Bank.

But now that Hamas has undergone this radical shift in its organization, means of conducting its struggle and its regional alliances, one has to ask: Which regional powers have driven it to take this path, and what will the regional ramifications of this shift look like?

To say that Qatar is playing a crucial role in this development is nothing new. The question is how, why and whether it is the only player in the arena.

It is no secret that Qatar, just as many other Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia, has been a major financier and supporter of Hamas since long before the latter’s strategic shift. Yet until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, regional players kept up the appearance of solidarity in dealing with Hamas as they did with other Muslim Brotherhood parties, as pressure cards against their rivals.

The triumph of the revolt in Egypt, however, sent shock tremors to the Kingdom. The head of the Saudi intelligence service lamented in an interview with Al Arabiya (TV) the fall of Mubarak on the grounds that he had been a close ally who stood by “us” during the first and second Gulf wars. Yet there is much more to this.

The Saudis never hid their animosity toward the Brothers, who challenged their puritanical interpretation of Islam and the legitimacy of their proclaimed role as the sole guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines. And the spectacular victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt brought the tensions among Sunni Islamists to the surface, an issue that some analysts quite naively reduce to regional rivalries of Sunni-versus-Shi’a states. Seeing their brethren on the ascendance in all the Arab spring revolutions, Hamas is eyeing Egypt as its most precious prize. Egypt after all is the birthplace of the Muslim Brothers, an additional reason for the Saudis’ fear of the consequences of Mubarak’s fall because the center of the Islamic world will shift to Egypt.

Here enter the strict followers of the Saudi interpretation of Islam: The Salafis, whose custom had been to refrain from political activity, even calling the electoral practice blasphemous on the grounds that it is Allah, and not humans, who issues laws. They suddenly embarked on that blasphemous path, reaping an unexpected number of seats in the parliament. According to the Akhbar al Youm Egyptian daily, a fact-finding committee formed by the ministry of justice concluded that Islamic groups received around $50 million, $30 million of which went to the Salafist Ansar al-Sunna group. The source of funding was two unnamed Gulf States, presumably Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In this regional power game, Saudi Arabia seems to be losing the competition not only with Egypt but also with Qatar who, unlike the former, enjoys close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood without burning its bridges with the Salafis. Is Hamas a pawn in this contest or a player? May be both. Many observers have rightly pointed to some of the factors that maintain Hamas’ ties with Iran after its rupture with Syria, the most important being its partial dependence on Iran’s financial aid. But is this wild speculation: is Qatar’s encouragement for Hamas a way to put more pressure on the Saudis by giving its arch enemy, the Islamic Republic, a chance to support the movement emboldened by the Arab Spring?

What would the next move be? The surprising rise of a Salafist movement in Gaza and the West Bank? Well, there is good ground for such a move. Just as Hamas was established to stand against the “defeatist” PLO, a Saudi-supported Salafist movement could challenge the “popular resistance” strategy recently adopted by Hamas.

Only time will tell.

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