Hamas, has governed the Gaza strip since 2007. Its Charter calls for the destruction of Israel and Jews. It states “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious” and calls for the eventual creation of an Islamic state in Palestine, in place of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Hamas also rejects the Quartet’s offer to become a partner in the peace talks by recognising the Jewish state, ending terror and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Nevertheless, increasingly commentators describe Hamas as ‘moderating’. They hail Hamas as ‘pragmatic’ and point to statements which suggest that Hamas would “accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees” (as a first step).
They now also point to comments made by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in which he claimed that Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, agreed during reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas on December 22, that “there will be no military resistance” and also agreed that “the permanent solution is on the ‘67 borders.” Abbas and Meshaal also agreed to a new temporary leadership for the PLO, for the first time in tandem with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
While the reconciliation agreement appears to facilitate Palestinian unity, many fear that, rather than moderate Hamas, it will strengthen Hamas diplomatically and in the West Bank to the detriment of the PA.
Middle East commentator Jonathan Halevi writes:
“Hamas’ joining of the PLO does not herald a strategic shift in the movement’s policy or recognition of the agreements the PLO has signed with Israel. The Hamas leadership keeps emphasising that it seeks to take over the PLO after new elections to the Palestinian National Council and to alter the PLO platform in accordance with its own views.”
Kenneth Bandler comments:
“Hamas will likely seek the Palestinian presidency if the long-delayed elections take place this year. Hamas has also indicated interest in joining the PLO. Since Abbas serves as both PA president and PLO chairman, Hamas sees an opportunity to expand its power and influence. The PLO oversees the more than 100 Palestinian embassies and missions around the world. Imagine, for a moment, Haniyeh, or Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader based until recently in Damascus, coming to New York to address the UN General Assembly as Palestine’s official representative. With Haniyeh’s current trip Abbas is no longer the exclusive Palestinian leader traversing the globe. The fight for the Palestinian leadership helm is intensifying.”
This analysis is supported by comments made by Osama Hamdan, who is in charge of Hamas foreign relations. He stated:
“Whoever thinks Hamas has changed its positions and that it accepts the PLO’s political platform of surrender is dreaming or fooling himself…Hamas is seeking a national framework to reconstruct the PLO [and] reconsider its political platform…from the standpoint of our basic principles and rights, which do not accept bargaining, particularly [over] the liberation of our land from the river to the sea and the right of return.”
Rift in Hamas leadership?
Of course, if Meshaal is sincere in rejecting violent resistance this change of heart would be very welcome.
However, it is unclear both the extent to which Meshaal accepts what Abbas said they agreed to and more importantly, whether Meshaal is speaking for Hamas – as many in Hamas have openly denied this new strategy, suggesting a rift between the Hamas leadership in Syria and the Gaza strip.
In relation to accepting the pre-1967 borders, two days before Meshaal allegedly agreed to the ‘permanent solution’ of the 1967 borders, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said such a step would be an “interim objective” and “reconciliation” with Fatah will not change Hamas’ long-term “strategic” goal of eliminating Israel. He said:
“The armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and for the expulsion of the invaders and usurpers [Israel]… We won’t relinquish one inch of the land of Palestine.”
In addition, senior Hamas official Sami Bardawii said that anyone who thinks Hamas will recognise Israel is “dreaming” because “recognition of Israel is not only a red line but, from our standpoint, a religious-legal prohibition.”
Regarding Meshaal’s agreement to reject violent resistance, this has also been denied by numerous Hamas officials. An official Hamas announcement on 27 December denied this approach. It stated:
“We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance [muqawama in the original, with a double entendre of resistance and struggle], jihad, and martyrdom for Allah [istishhad] has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.”
Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas figure inside Gaza, also denied that Meshaal endorsed non-violent “popular resistance” against Israel. Zahar said: ”There has been no change concerning our mode of thinking towards the conflict,” and said that Hamas was not prepared to stop fighting against Israel under any circumstances.
Other rejections came from Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum who on December 29, said that claims that Hamas had abandoned the armed struggle “reflect the state of despair that the Israeli government is facing as a result of the firmness of the Palestinian resistance.”
The Hamas’s Interior Minister Fathi Hammad also told a visiting Tunisian delegation of supporters that the Palestinians would “pursue the path of resistance against Israeli occupation.” Hammad said that Hamas would never recognise Israel, or make any concessions on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their original homes inside Israel.
The contradictory Hamas statements suggest a rift in the Hamas leadership over its future strategy, causing many to question what Hamas actually believes.
Moreover, while Meshaal was long generally regarded as the most senior leader of Hamas, this appears to no longer be true. Evelyn Gordon writes in Commentary:
“While Meshal, the man who signed the agreement with Abbas, was long considered Hamas’s top dog, Israeli intelligence now believes he has dropped to third or fourth place, below Gaza-based leaders like Haniyeh, Haaretz reported [Hebrew only]. Why? Because the Damascus-based Meshal’s power came from being the organization’s financier – the conduit for Iranian cash – and from his close ties with the Assad regime in Syria, where Hamas is headquartered. But now, the Assad regime is crumbling; Iran has slashed its funding over what it deems Hamas’s insufficient support for Assad; and Egypt is replacing Syria as Hamas’s patron. Hence, Meshal’s influence is waning.”
Fatah/Hamas Reconciliation collapses?
Cracks have appeared not only within the Hamas leadership but also in the ‘reconciliation’ agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah signed last May and sealed in December.
Hamas recently warned the PA against pursuing peace talks with Israel, despite PA officials meeting with Israeli officials in Jordan to discuss re-starting the peace talks.
Zahar told Reuters that if Abbas bets on peace talks with Israel rather than reconciling his Fatah movement with Hamas, he will lose out.
Hamas grows in confidence due to Arab ‘Spring’
Hamas feels empowered by the Islamist surge in the Arab spring which has witnessed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially the new ruling party in Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood is also the main opposition group in Jordan and Syria.
In a show of unity with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas leader Haniyeh declared that Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Haniyeh said, “Our presence with the Brotherhood threatens the Israeli entity.” That is true to an extent. Israeli’s fear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s power in Egypt may undo the peace agreement with Israel. Recently, the Brotherhood’s Deputy Leader Dr Rashad Bayoumi told Arabic daily al-Hayat, that the Brotherhood will not recognise Israel “under any circumstance.”
The Egyptian Brotherhood’s leader Mahumamed al-Badi also said that Hamas had been a role model for the Brotherhood.
Barry Rubin comments:
“While this might be mere flattery it might be noted that Hamas first won an election, then went into a coalition with a ‘more moderate’ partner (Fatah), and then staged a coup to seize complete power. That’s an interesting precedent for Badi to cite.”
Hamas also sees the rise of Islamism in the Arab world as strengthening support for Hamas and undermine Fatah. Zahar said:
“The changing factors around us are in our favor … they are not in favor either of Fatah’s project or those with whom it cooperates, including the Israeli enemy…What is coming in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya and currently in Sudan is supportive of the Palestinian cause, not as in the past a strategic supporter of the Israeli occupation…What is coming is a thousand times better than in the past. Therefore we have to invest in these achievements by the Arab street for the sake of achieving the fundamental goals of the Palestinian people, the liberation of land and the return of (refugees).”
Zahar also said Egypt is clearly destined to be ruled by “a sweeping Islamist party and a nationalist party” that will back the Palestinian cause.
Zahar may have a point. Until recently most Arab countries had boycotted Hamas, but now the Islamist regimes that have emerged from the Arab Spring are reaching out to Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh has recently been on tour of Arab countries and received a hero’s welcome. For example, in Tunisia the crowd at the airport met him with chants of “kick out the Jews, drive out the Jews, kill the Jews.”
As Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh writes:
“In the countries that he has visited so far — Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia — Haniyeh was received as the “Palestinian Prime Minister.” The leaders of these three countries went out of their way to treat Haniyeh as if he were a legendary Muslim warrior who has declared jihad [holy war] on the infidels…Haniyeh’s tour would not have been possible were it not for the rise to power of Islamists thanks to the ‘Arab Spring.’ Under the former dictators of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, people like Haniyeh were persona non grata. If anything, the “Arab Spring” has so far strengthened Hamas at the expense of the less radical Palestinian camp.”
If Hamas were to renounce to violence and accept Israel’s existence that would be a monumental step towards Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, given that many in Hamas have denied this approach, it appears Hamas is still far from this course. Moreover, Hamas is probably even more unwilling to reconsider the idea of coexistence with Israel because it feels that the regional changes in the Arab world will strengthen Hamas and weaken the PA and Israel.