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Food vs. guns: Will Hamas chose Egypt or Iran?

The military wing of Hamas in Gaza pressures the new boss Yahya Sinwar to mend ties with Iran, while the residents of the Gaza Strip need the assistance of Egypt against the misery of the long closure.
Freed Palestinian Hamas leader Yehia Sinwar (C) greets supporters following his release from an Israeli jail at a welcome tent near his home in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, on October 19, 2011. The Palestinian Hamas movement exchanged Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who spent more than five years of isolation in a Gaza hide-out, for hundreds of Palestinian militants being held in Israeli jails. AFP PHOTO/SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Ismail Haniyeh handed his duties as head of Hamas in Gaza to his elected successor, Yahya Sinwar, Feb. 21. Haniyeh remains deputy head of the movement’s political bureau but is expected to be promoted to replace Khaled Meshaal at the top of the bureau after elections for the Shura Council, the organization’s supreme body, are held.

A senior Hamas source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the election process would soon be completed and that Haniyeh would formally be declared the movement’s leader. He declined, however, to elaborate on the reason for the delay. According to the source, Haniyeh is already making decisions and conducting himself as the de facto chief of the political bureau.

On the occasion of the transfer of power, Haniyeh updated Sinwar on talks he had in January in Cairo with Khaled Fawzy, head of Egyptian intelligence, and on his view that improving relations with Egypt should be the movement’s top priority. According to Haniyeh, having good relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the key to a reasonable modicum of existence for Gaza residents and for the survival of Hamas' leadership. Mass protests against electricity shortages in mid-January got organization leaders' attention and recognition of the potential of the pent-up rage and frustration generated by years of being mired in poverty.

The Hamas source, a former member of Haniyeh’s team of advisers, told Al-Monitor that since being elected movement leader in Gaza, Sinwar has been saying that he views Egypt as a friendly state with which arrangements and understandings must be reached and that the two parties would both enjoy the benefits of reconciliation.

As reported in Al-Monitor Jan. 30, Egypt has presented Haniyeh with a list of demands, foremost of which is a commitment to hand over Palestinians who are suspected of terror attacks against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula and are hiding out in Gaza. Some of them are in all likelihood Hamas activists whose extradition to Egypt could generate opposition among the organization’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and be viewed as unacceptable collaboration with Cairo.

This is the first catch-22 that Sinwar must address expeditiously. According to Gaza sources, he has already told Haniyeh and the many activists and senior Hamas officials who came to congratulate him on his new job that Egypt, in his view, is a friend and that Hamas should be committed to closer cooperation and coordination with Cairo. The coming weeks will reveal whether he means what he says, whether he has crossed the Rubicon and accepted Egypt’s considerable conditions for reconciliation. Sinwar undoubtedly knows that his success depends on his ability to ease the economic pressure on Gaza residents, if only partially.

On the day that Haniyeh handed the reins to Sinwar, all the Palestinian factions except Fatah gathered in Tehran for the International Conference on the Palestinian Intifada. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also the conference's patron, launched the sixth annual meeting by declaring that strengthening the movements for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel was of great importance.

“Support for the resistance movements is vital,” Khamenei said. Support means money, military equipment and training and drilling under the tutelage and sponsorship of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Khamenei’s remarks can be interpreted to mean that Iran, which has in recent years significantly cut its support for Hamas in light of their opposing positions on the Syrian civil war, intends to once again sponsor the movement, as long as it continues to fight the “Israeli occupation.”

A furious debate has been raging within Hamas that is of great concern to the movement’s leaders, chief among them Meshaal: Should Hamas rely on support from Tehran, strive to improve ties with it and accept the policies it dictates, or should it opt for the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and in so doing, indirectly gain Egypt’s political support. There can be no compromise or halfway measures on this issue. It is a choice — either Tehran or Cairo, either arms for the military wing, which is preparing for another clash with Israel, or basic necessities for besieged Gaza residents.

Thus, Sinwar has walked straight into a fateful dilemma. In his first week on the job, he already finds himself between a rock and a hard place, between the heavy pressure of military wing activists imploring him to return to Iran’s fold, with the attendant supply of weaponry, and the desperate Palestinians seeking a minimum level of dignified subsistence.

Sinwar — imprisoned in Israel from 1989 until being freed in 2011 in the exchange deal for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas — knows full well that Israel will not be his salvation and that no amount of diplomatic pressure will lead it to lift the decadelong siege of Gaza. In recent years, Hamas leaders had hoped that pressure by Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would nudge Israel on this issue, but now they accept that this channel will not yield a solution to the siege.

Sinwar, elected mainly as result of energetic efforts by members of the movement’s armed wing, who view him as their own flesh and blood, will, like a well-seasoned diplomat, have to quickly choose a course of action. After 22 years in an Israeli jail, he knows the choice he faces: weapons from Iran will strengthen Hamas' military power but could also result in the end of its control over Gaza if the movement provokes a new round of violence with Israel, whereas flexibility or surrender to neighboring Egypt will probably guarantee him years of leadership as head of the movement in Gaza.

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