Israel Pulse

Can Hamas spin itself out of crisis?

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Article Summary
Recent remarks by Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar about Iran assisting the movement to grow stronger are intended to sideline criticism within the Gaza Strip against it, and to pressure Israel into accepting a long-term cease-fire.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in Gaza, recently gave interviews to Al Jazeera and Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Hezbollah, to boast about his movement’s achievements in the wake of the recent border fence demonstrations and the Great Return March. In the interviews, on May 16 and 21, respectively, Sinwar also threatened that if Hamas is forced into another round of fighting with Israel, its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades will have a few surprises in store for the “Zionist enemy.” To add substance to his bellicosity, Sinwar said that Iran had provided Hamas with weapons, large sums of money and advanced technologies, and that as a result, the movement had significantly improved its military capabilities. He boasted that the relationship between Hamas and Iran is closer today than it has ever been and that he is in daily contact with both Hezbollah and Tehran.

Sinwar's decision to disclose the close relationship with Iran at this particular point in time is surprising. First, Hamas wants to convince Egypt to expand its easing of the closure of Gaza. The movement’s leaders take pride in the fact that one of the most important results of the events along the border fence was the opening of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan and perhaps beyond that. Sinwar’s statement that Iranian arms are flowing into Gaza — apparently through Egypt, since there is no other route — is exactly what the Egyptians do not care to hear right now from the Hamas leadership in Gaza, who are begging them for additional relief.

Second, the leaders of Hamas, chief among them Sinwar, have not given up on the possibility of reaching a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. The head of the movement’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, made reconciliation a top priority when on May 18 he declared that events along the border fence had, supposedly, been a great victory for the movement. Haniyeh announced that reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) is important to Hamas and that he is willing to work to achieve it. That said, talk about Iran and claims that the military wing of Hamas is stronger than ever are exactly what Abbas is afraid of, thus preventing him from moving forward with the reconciliation process.

A PA security source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that Sinwar’s statements do not reflect the reality on the ground and that they were essentially made in response to internal Palestinian politics. That is, they were intended to downplay criticism of Hamas in Gaza for having sent civilians to the border fence to be wounded and killed instead of sending its military wing on missions to lift the closure. This is also why another senior member of Hamas, Salah Bardawil, was so quick to make the surprising announcement that 50 out of the 62 people killed along the fence were members of the organization. Bardawil’s statement conflicted with international coverage of an allegedly nonviolent civilian demonstration, which Israel met with a disproportionate response, but it managed to tone down some of the criticism of Hamas in Gaza.

The source also claimed that Iran is not sending large sums of money to Gaza and that it certainly cannot send sophisticated weapons into Gaza through Egypt. The problem is not just the logistics of smuggling weapons through the Rafah tunnels — most, if not all, of which the Egyptians have sealed — but also a result of Iran’s different priorities. While it considers Hamas to be an ally, it also believes that it is an ally of limited capabilities.

“Sinwar may be bragging about all the money being provided by Iran, but where is it?” the source remarked. “How can it be explained, given the severe economic situation in Gaza over the past few months? That is, after all, the reason why the movement’s leaders have been sending conciliatory messages to Israel in the first place, including proposals for a long-term hudna [truce].”

Right now, Israel is looking at two separate proposals for a hudna, relayed by way of Egypt and Qatar. According to a Channel 10 report, Israel is demanding a complete halt to rocket fire and the digging of attack tunnels, maintaining the security perimeter and a solution to the problem of Israeli prisoners and missing soldiers held by Hamas. In exchange, Israel would allow a significant relaxation of restrictions at the border crossings.

It seems as if Sinwar’s remarks about the strength of the al-Qassam Brigades were also intended to send a message to Israel that if it does not respond positively to the proposals for a hudna, the next round of fighting with Hamas will be more violent than in 2014, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. As far as Sinwar is concerned, the only credible way to claim that the movement’s military wing has gotten stronger after the failure of the tunnel project is by saying that Iran is backing Hamas. Any other claims would lack credibility. They would simply make no sense. On the other hand, Sinwar failed to take into consideration that the mere mention of Iran is enough to foil any possible agreement with Israel.

The Palestinian source said that the relationship between Hamas and Iran should not be dismissed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “It should be placed in the proper proportions.” According to him, there is cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah on a daily basis thanks to Beirut-based Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, and his efforts to reconcile with Tehran after the Khaled Meshaal crisis, in which the former Hamas leader threw his support behind Saudi Arabia, which by extension means against Iran. As far as Iran is concerned, strengthening Hamas in Lebanon and Syria is far more important than arming the al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza, since they will not be able to change the rules of the game with Israel or act decisively in any other way as long as Gaza remains on the verge of collapse.

Two Hamas officials in Gaza turned down an Al-Monitor request for an interview about the movement's relationship with Tehran. They said they are not willing to contradict Sinwar, while noting that their movement considers Iran a close friend of the Palestinian people in their struggle against the Israeli occupation.

In contrast, a journalist in Gaza identified with Hamas told Al-Monitor that the relationship between Hamas and Iran has warmed over the last year, but it is still not what it used to be. According to him, there is a lively debate within the movement over the cost and benefits of the relationship with Tehran and that Sinwar actually prefers the relationship with Egypt, because he is convinced that only a strong relationship with Egypt can ameliorate the crisis in Gaza in general and Hamas’ situation in particular.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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