Hamas' Leadership Crisis May Spell Radicalization

Shlomi Eldar writes that the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmad Jabari foreshadows a likely radicalization of Hamas's leadership.

al-monitor A Palestinian stone-thrower holds a Hamas flag as he climbs a street pole during clashes with Israeli security forces outside Ofer prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah November 18, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

leadership, hamas, global jihad, gaza, damascus

Nov 19, 2012

Two days before the killing of Ahmed Jabari, I talked on the phone with [Deputy Foreign Minister for Hamas in Gaza] Dr. Ghazi Hamad, who had served at the time as a go-between in the Gilad Shalit swap deal and worked closely with Jabari during the secret negotiations with Israel. I asked him one simple question: “Don’t you see where it is all heading, that Israel is on the way to Operation Cast Lead number two?” 

Hamad said nothing in response. He did not need me to understand what was going on here. He realized on his own where it was all heading. The writing was on the wall and many in Hamas knew perfectly well what it meant, but they could do nothing about it. Hamad’s silence testified to the confusion and division in Hamas. There are too many differing forces and too many conflicting views there at present, and no leadership strong enough to assume control and hold the fort.

Once upon a time, there were the Gaza Hamas and the Damascus Hamas. In the lead at the time was the Damascus Hamas, while the Gaza Hamas was subordinate to the former. The hierarchy was quite clear and the leaders had faces and names. The spiritual, religious Hamas leadership had its headquarters in Gaza. Sheik Ahmed Yassin set the tone then. Everyone knew his place, and each one knew what he had to do. However, Yassin was killed, the Damascus Hamas disintegrated and a leadership vacuum was created, but not for long. In walked Ahmed Jabari. Under his command, the Hamas military wing took over, pushing aside the political wing, something that could not have happened under Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

The chaos in Hamas and the lack of leadership capable of making tough decisions have led to a crisis in the organization. Under these circumstances, in the absence of control, anarchy reigns. It's every man for himself and each does as he sees fit. Every armed militant is a hero. Every operative launching a Qassam rocket is a king. The Islamic Jihad raises its head and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) follow suit. These are relatively small organizations; however, the damage they cause is not in proportion to their size.

This is not the first time this has happened. Already as far back as 2005, following the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, Hamad wrote an article that was published in the Hamas journal under the heading "Have Mercy on Gaza." In it, he lashed out against the unruly armed militants who were violating laws and breaking the commonly agreed-upon rules and in general doing whatever they wanted to do.

“It is strange that when great efforts are made to reopen the Rafah crossing to ease the suffering of the citizens, there will always be someone who insists on firing another rocket at the crossing,” Hamad wrote.

The privileges of the rulers

Those same armed militants that Hamas did not dare disarm back in 2005 are the ones who over and over again led to escalation. Even at times when Hamas refrained from firing rockets into Israel and sought to maintain a responsible government in the Gaza Strip, the other organizations dragged it where it had no wish to be. Hamas has been involuntarily drawn into a PR campaign in which each of the organizations seeks to present itself as serving the values of the Jihad more faithfully than any of the other organizations. Jabari himself, who had no fear of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh or of Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, was afraid of confronting the other organizations. 

In March 2012, after PRC Secretary-General Zuhair al-Qaissi was targeted and killed by Israel, another round of escalation was sparked between Israel and Gaza. The Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees fired hundreds of rockets toward Israel, while the Hamas leadership looked on, bewildered. Once that round of hostilities was over, its perplexity turned into humiliation. The Islamic Jihad held its victory celebrations along Gaza City's Omar al-Mukhtar Street and from the podium, harsh criticism was leveled at Jabari, Haniyeh and Meshaal. The speakers charged that the three preferred the privileges of the rulers and had forsaken the uncompromising ideals of the armed struggle against Israel. Hamas, which hung the banner of the “Islamic Resistance movement,” suffered a severe blow to its image and was publicly disgraced, presented as an organization that lost its ideological way.

The politics of radicalization

Hamas, the movement that made history when expelling Fatah from the Gaza Strip, has been trying to consolidate its control since. To that end, it was willing to go as far as to reach an understanding and agreement with Israel. In his early days in office as prime minister, Haniyeh was among those who led the pragmatic line in the organization. Even Ahmed Jabari, who was considered an extremist, established a relationship of sorts with Israel, mainly under Egyptian patronage.

There were already certain indications in Hamas that the organization was moving away from its extremist militant line toward a more moderate and sensible approach, in which it sought to govern Gaza. However, once it was forced to fight an uphill battle against other movements, some of them short-lived, it lost its way.

Politicians have no choice but to maintain their image in the eyes of the public at all costs, as any realist would tell you. No one in Hamas could allow himself to be seen as betraying the values and the ideology at the base of the movement, even if at the expense of assuring a better life for the Palestinian population. Hamas is fighting for its image in the eyes of this public every hour of every day and in this case, emotions have the upper hand over rationality and pragmatism.

Among the names mentioned as Jabari’s potential successors are Raad al-Atar, Mohammed Abu-Shamala, Marwan Issa, Muhammad Sinwar and his brother Yahya Sinwar, who was released from prison in the Shalit swap deal and has already made a place for himself in the upper echelons of the Hamas leadership. The question at the moment is not who will be appointed in place of Jabari, but rather whether the appointment will be acceptable to all factions in the Gaza Strip.

The next military chief, whoever may be appointed, will have to demonstrate his worthiness of the appointment. It seems that such proof can be p rovided only by escalating the struggle against Israel and by displaying unwavering commitment to the concept of jihad. Thus, it is rather doubtful that the successors of Ahmed Jabari would be interested in or capable of accomplishing what has not been done by him.

Under the current circumstances, disarming the militants and restoring law and order are far more difficult tasks than they were several years ago. And as matters now stand, there does not seem to be anyone in Hamas who can or wants to take such a brave step. There is no strong enough figure in Hamas these days endowed with genuine leadership skills and enjoying the unprecedentedly wide support required to make such a move. There is no one in Hamas today who is ready to pay the price of what is bound to be branded by the other organizations in Gaza as no less than infidelity and betrayal. 

If Ismail Haniyeh, who in his early days in office as prime minister was among those who led the pragmatic line in Hamas, has succumbed to the popular mood, assumed a belligerent posture and adopted an aggressive tone in his speeches, what can we expect of his lesser colleagues in the movement?

The writer is a commentator on Arab affairs for Israeli TV’s Channel 10 and the author of the book Knowing Hamas.