Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Opportunity created by Hamas disarray

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Ely Karmon

 

A string of major regional developments over the past two years has left the Islamist Hamas government in Gaza in dire straits and opened up new opportunities for Israel and Palestinian moderates.

In backing the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war, Hamas forfeited its special ties with its biggest arms supplier, Iran; the military ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Cairo put serious strains on its relations with Egypt; and a change of leadership in Qatar left a big question-mark over the extent of financial aid from the oil-rich Gulf state it can continue to count on.

The "axis of resistance" - Shi'ite Iran, Alawite Syria, Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas - survived until the beginning of the uprising in Syria, in 2011. As the civil war intensified, Hamas found its Sunni identity increasingly at odds with the non-Sunni axis to which it belonged. In December 2011, under strong external Sunni pressure, the Hamas leadership and all military operatives left Damascus and relocated to Gaza, Egypt, Qatar and Sudan.

The fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February that year had opened the way for Hamas to return to the natural embrace of its parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising power in post-revolutionary Egypt. With the Brotherhood's backing, they hoped to be able first to challenge the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, and then Israel. At the same time, Hamas found a place in the Sunni coalition of Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia against the Assad regime in Damascus and its Iranian sponsor.

The estrangement from Iran and Syria, however, came at a price. Military aid from Iran ground to a halt. Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister, confirmed in May this year that relations with Iran were "bad" and that "for supporting the Syrian revolution, [Hamas] lost very much" in the field of military cooperation.

Hamas had hoped that this strategic loss would be more than made up for by the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Initial signs were good. Although President Mohammed Morsi did not denounce the peace accords with Israel, he refused to deal directly with Israelis; moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme spiritual guide Sheikh Mohammed Badie called for "jihad to liberate Jerusalem from the Israeli occupation"; and during the IDF Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza, in November 2012, Morsi's Prime Minister Hesham Kandil made a solidarity visit to Gaza declaring, "The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims."

However, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to deliver the goods. It failed to meet Gaza's energy needs, and after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai by jihadist militants from Gaza in August 2012, Morsi's Egypt closed down many of the Sinai-Gaza smuggling tunnels, dealing a severe blow to the Gazan economy. Indeed, in late September, large protests in Gaza against rising prices of construction materials and fuel were directed at Egypt as much as at Israel. Apart from symbolic support, Morsi was careful not to provide Hamas with any material aid or to threaten Israel with active Egyptian involvement - even during Israel's Pillar of Defence operation against Gaza.
Nevertheless, the military takeover in Egypt in early July left Hamas in a state of shock.

The campaign against Hamas by the new military-backed government, the state media and public opinion intensified in proportion to the growing violence of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations across Egypt. Egyptian state television accused Hamas of training people to undertake car-bombing operations and the leading Egyptian state paper, Al-Ahram, cited high-ranking security sources who accused Hamas of involvement in the abortive assassination attempt against Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in September.

Over the past three months the Egyptian army has destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels underneath the Sinai border with Gaza. For all intents and purposes, it has created a buffer zone by clearing buildings deemed a security threat up to one kilometre from the border.

Egyptian military, economic and media pressure has also impacted on Hamas' political standing. In August, a Gazan version of the Egyptian Tamarod - the rebel movement that led the popular protests against Morsi in the run-up to his removal by the military - began preparations for mass demonstrations against Hamas on November 11, the anniversary of former Fatah leader Yasser Arafat's death. Over the past two months, Hamas security agencies arrested dozens of Fatah activists and journalists charged with belonging to Tamarod.

Moreover Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates support the Egyptian military crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and show no inclination to help its Palestinian branch in Gaza. In September, Jordan too turned down a request from Hamas to reopen its offices in Amman.

And in Qatar, which had supported Hamas with donations, grants and field projects (not cash) to compensate for the cessation of Iranian support, there was a change in leadership. In June, the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani stepped aside for his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The new ruler seems more likely to focus on domestic issues and will probably be more circumspect in his regional policies. There have already been reports of worsening ties between Hamas and Qatar - although senior Hamas officials deny this, and insist that Iran has not made a resumption of relations with Hamas conditional on its severing ties with Qatar.

Hamas' staunchest diplomatic supporter is Turkey, but when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned a high-profile solidarity visit to Gaza, he was barred by Egypt's new rulers.

Hamas is also challenged in the Palestinian arena by the strengthening of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas' standing and the possibility of progress in the PA's peace talks with Israel. This could lead it to attempt to sabotage the negotiations through major terrorist attacks in the West Bank or in Israel proper, or through a campaign of missile and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. This could elicit popular Egyptian pressure on the military regime in Cairo to support Hamas in the event of a major Israeli retaliation.

Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal recently called for a unified Palestinian strategy to confront what he called "Israeli schemes of Judaisation" in Jerusalem. This would be achieved by building an Arab, Islamic and Palestinian military capability to follow a widespread popular uprising designed to drain Israel on a daily basis.

Hamas also keeps open the option of renewed fighting against Israel by strengthening its alliance with the Gaza Salafist groups. Contacts between Hamas and the Salafists over the past few months, mediated by clerics from Kuwait and the influential Egyptian religious leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, led to an agreement which reportedly grants the Salafists "freedom to operate in politics, the military arena, religious advocacy, as well as civil and social organisations." In return, the Salafist factions "will commit to the cease-fire and other decisions made by the ruling Hamas movement." Arrests and harassment of Salafists have ceased recently and many detainees have been released.

Ali Baraka, the chief Hamas representative in Lebanon, recently summarised the organisation's strategy concerning relations with its former allies. The fact that Hamas and Iran differ over how best to achieve a peaceful settlement in Syria does not mean they differ on everything else, he said. Hamas and Iran share the same positions on a number of key issues, including standing "against Israel and Zionist actions in the Middle East."

However, given Iran's overtures to the West since Hassan Rouhani's inauguration as President in August, Teheran will probably be very cautious in its regional conduct, especially towards a rogue organisation like Hamas.

I have long held that the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have little chance of success as long as the PA does not rule Gaza. There is now a window of opportunity to exploit Hamas' weakness, Egypt's goodwill and Teheran's restraint to advance the peace negotiations.

The idea would be to impose PA control over Gaza, divide the Hamas movement by giving the more pragmatic Hamas leaders incentives to be part of a new joint regime, and by offering the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza better economic and territorial conditions in the short-term, and, in the long-term, a clear compromise acceptable to all parties.

Dr. Ely Karmon is a senior research scholar at the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Centre's Institute for Counter-Terrorism. © Jerusalem Report (www.jpost.com/jerusalemreport) reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.