Regional events have Hamas in political limbo

Various events and unresolved regional crises have fed Hamas' reluctance to forge regional alliances and take decisive positions on developments in the Arab world.

al-monitor A Palestinian policeman loyal to Hamas stands guard near burning tires during a protest by Palestinians calling for reconstruction of their houses that witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during the 50-day war last summer, outside a United Nations food distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 16, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Topics covered

reconciliation, qatar, izz ad-din al-qassam brigades, iran, hamas, gaza, fatah, egypt

Feb 24, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An unfolding series of events, fast-moving developments and lingering crises in the Arab world have left Hamas unable to take definitive positions on policies and alliances. In particular, it is in no position to decisively assert a position in the Palestinian domestic​ arena or set a clear-cut strategy for its regional alliances.

Hamas had been encouraged by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia following the Arab Spring revolutions, reforging its alliances in the region after its leadership withdrew from Syria and distanced the organization from Iran. After the toppling of the Brotherhood-led government in Egypt in 2013, there was talk of a rapprochement with Iran, but nothing came of it in the immediate aftermath. The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in late January and the subsequent change in the kingdom's ruling regime has prompted the movement to continue to move slowly before making a final decision in that regard.

The crisis between Hamas and Egypt remains ongoing. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is still closed. Hamas' military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, continues to be classified as a terrorist group by Cairo. In addition, media incitement against Hamas in Egypt shows no sign of letting up.

Hamas condemned the burning to death of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh in January by the Islamic State (IS), perhaps as part of a bid to move closer to the Jordanian regime. It did not, however, denounce the car bomb killing of dozens of Egyptian soldiers on Oct. 26, 2014, in the Sinai Peninsula, instead only expressing sorrow over their deaths. The movement did condemn the killing of Christians in Libya in a brief statement.

Most of Hamas' leaders continue to live abroad, in Qatar and Turkey, two countries whose relations with Egypt were strained after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi. The recent reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar has prompted Hamas to reassess where it is treading, as it fears a reduction in Qatari support.

One Hamas leader, Ahmed Youssef, said that the movement’s positions are, as usual, discussed within Hamas’ political bureau and the Shura Council, to produce a unified stance and that the organization is assessing alliances in the region.

Youssef told Al-Monitor, “We are preserving the Arab and Islamic consensus and are trying to distance ourselves from the current regional alliances. We are keeping the same distance from everyone. If Hamas takes a position in favor of this country or that, or establishes its leadership in some countries, this might raise the ire of other parties, and we would be immediately labeled as belonging to one alliance or another.”

Another Hamas leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that under the current Arab status quo, Hamas is experiencing a political crisis, which has forced it to give up governing Gaza. He said that none of the group's relations with the Arab states are firm at the moment.

“The entire region is plagued with crises. There are fierce conflicts ongoing, and we, ourselves, are in the amidst of a crisis as well. We cannot take a clear-cut position toward the different political issues. All we can do is wait for a breakthrough in the region that would positively affect Hamas’ crisis,” he told Al-Monitor.

“We want to forge an alliance that will back the Palestinian cause, regardless of the state. There are pivotal states in the region that cannot be stepped over, therefore their domestic tensions are automatically reflected in internal Palestinian relations given the existing tug-of-war. Every [Palestinian] party seeks to make the best of [foreign] support,” he said.

The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation continues to struggle given the differences among Arabs and the crises around the region. This remains the case despite the Palestinian parties' assertions that reconciliation is a strategic option for both of them.

“There is general concern in the entire Arab region. The Palestinian issue is no longer the central issue for the Arab states, which are subsumed by their own internal conflicts. Thus, there are no efforts being deployed toward the Palestinian cause,” said Youssef. This is reflected in the troubles of the reconciliation process, because it needs Arab political and financial support to move forward.

The same anonymous source said that during Morsi’s tenure, Hamas was in no hurry to reconcile with Fatah, because it believed Islamists would dominate the political scene going forward. “We thought the Islamists would continue to rise in the Arab region and that the West would deal with them sooner or later, which had strengthened Hamas’ position internally. However, this did not happen, and thus we found ourselves heading toward reconciliation in a weakened position,” he said.

Political writer Mo’men Bsisou said that Hamas is for the moment stuck in an unsettled, gray area that will not be changing in the near future. Bsisou told Al-Monitor, “Hamas does not know where it is treading or in which direction it is going, especially in light of abrupt regional changes. It is waiting on unfolding developments to determine its positions accordingly.” He added, “For now, Hamas’ situation is contingent on the Arab status quo, although it is not completely dependent on the foreign situation. However, this would affect it and its internal decision-making mechanism.”

Hamas needs more financial and political support because the movement depends on armed action as its strategy for confronting Israel. In addition, the Qassam Brigades are viewed as a source of internal strength and mass popularity, which is a trump card domestically and externally.

As Hamas puts off taking decisive stances and clarifying its strategies and alliances, it remains in a state of political limbo vis-a-vis internal Palestinian issues and relations with its rival, Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For now, the movement watches and waits for movements in Cairo, Riyadh, Doha, Damascus and Tehran.

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