Can Hamas be sprung from its big freeze?
Middle East Report N°12914 Aug 2012
International Crisis Group
August 14, 2012
Hamas never has faced such large challenges and opportunities as presented by the Arab uprisings. It abandoned its headquarters in Damascus, at much cost to ties with its largest state supporter, Iran, while improving those with such U.S. allies as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. Asked to pick sides in an escalating regional contest, it has sought to choose neither. Internal tensions are at new heights, centring on how to respond to regional changes in the short run. Leaders in the West Bank and exile tend to believe that with the rise to power of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in particular and the West’s rapprochement with Islamists in general, it is time for bolder steps toward Palestinian unity, thereby facilitating Hamas’s regional and wider international integration. The Gaza leadership by contrast is wary of large strategic steps amid a still uncertain regional future. These new dynamics – Islamists’ regional ascent; shifting U.S. and EU postures toward them; vacillation within their Palestinian offshoot – offer both Hamas and the West opportunities. But seizing them will take far greater pragmatism and realism than either has yet shown.
The Arab uprisings hardly could have caused a more stark reversal of Hamas’s fortunes. In the stagnant years preceding them, it had been at an impasse: isolated diplomatically; caged in economically by Egypt and Israel; crushed by Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank; warily managing an unstable ceasefire with a far more powerful adversary; incapable of fulfilling popular demands for reconciliation with Fatah; and more or less treading water in Gaza, where some supporters saw it as having sullied itself with the contradictions of being an Islamist movement constricted by secular governance and a resistance movement actively opposing Gaza-based attacks against Israel.
Facing reduced popularity since the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections that brought it to power, Hamas had to contend with criticism from without and within, the latter accompanied by defections from a small but important group of militants who left to join groups more committed to upholding Islamic law and to engaging in attacks against Israel. All in all, the movement could take comfort in little other than that Fatah was doing no better.
The Arab revolts seemed to change all that. Positive developments came from across the region: the toppling of Fatah’s strong Arab ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; the rise in Egypt of Hamas’s closest supporter and mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood; the opening of the Gaza-Sinai crossing at Rafah, control of which the former Egyptian regime had used to pressure, constrict and impoverish what it perceived to be Gaza’s illegitimate rulers; the empowerment of Islamist parties in other countries; growing instability in states with large Islamist oppositions; and the promise of a new, more democratic regional order reflecting widespread aversion to Israel and its allies and popular affinity with Hamas. As Hamas saw it, these and other events promised to profoundly affect the advancement of each of its primary goals: governing Gaza; weakening Fatah’s grip over the West Bank; spreading Islamic values through society; ending its diplomatic isolation; and strengthening regional alliances in opposition to Israel.
Yet, regional changes also have come at a cost. Above all, the uprising in Syria, where its political bureau had been based for more than a decade, presented the movement with one of the greatest challenges it has faced, tearing it between competing demands. On the one hand, the movement had to weigh the gratitude felt to a regime that had supported it when nearly all other Arab countries had shunned it; the cost of breaking relations with a regime still clinging to power; and the risks entailed in alienating Iran, its largest supporter and supplier of money, weapons and training. On the other hand, Hamas considered its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Sunni Arabs more generally, as well as its indebtedness to the Syrian people, who had long stood with the movement. Hovering over these were its obligations to Syria’s hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who could pay with their homes and lives for the decisions made by some of their political leaders.
Difficult as the external balancing act has been, the Arab uprisings also have forced upon the movement a no less trying challenge by bringing to the surface and exacerbating internal contradictions and rifts among its varied constituencies. The impasse at which Hamas had been stuck before the Arab upheavals allowed the movement to keep its many differences largely beneath the surface; with few significant opportunities before it, no contest among visions needed take place. But once Hamas found itself in a dramatically altered environment with novel challenges and possibilities, longstanding tensions came to the fore and new forms of friction emerged. Broadly speaking, these reflect several interrelated factors: the group’s geographic dispersion and its leadership’s varied calculations, caused by differing circumstances (in Gaza, prisons, the West Bank or outside); ideological distinctions, particularly albeit not exclusively related to varying assessments of the impact of the Arab upheavals; roles in the movement’s political, military, religious and governance activities; and pre-existing personal rivalries.
The contest within Hamas has played out most vividly and publicly over the issue of Palestinian reconciliation. That is because it is a primary demand of Palestinians and touches on many of the most important strategic questions faced by the movement, including integration within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), control of the Palestinian Authority, the status of security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, the formation of a joint national strategy with Fatah and Hamas’s political endgame with Israel.
Hamas’s differences over national strategy, particularly over how far to go in reconciliation negotiations, stem in large part from contrasting perceptions of what near-term effects the Arab uprisings will have on the movement. These in turn have been shaped by the distinct first-hand experiences of the leaderships in Gaza and, until recently, Damascus. Broadly speaking, the strategic divide corresponds to two views, themselves related to two different sets of interests: that, on one hand, because regional changes are playing largely to Hamas’s favour, the movement should do little other than hold fast to its positions as it waits for the PA to weaken, economic conditions in Gaza to improve and its allies to grow in strength; and that, on the other, it should take this rare occasion to make tough decisions that might bring about significant long-term gains.
The international community has a stake in the choices Hamas ultimately makes. The movement will continue to play a vital role in Palestinian politics, affecting the prospect of renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well as their odds of success. Reuniting the West Bank and Gaza is not only desirable; it also is necessary to achieving a two-state settlement. And territorial division, coupled with Gaza’s persistent economic isolation, contains the seeds of further conflict with Israel. For these and other reasons, the world – and the West in particular – must do more than merely stand on the sidelines as Hamas wrestles over its future. Instead, the U.S. and Europe should test whether they can seize the opportunity presented by two related developments: first, the rise to power (notably in Egypt) of Islamist movements that are keen on improving relations with the West, crave stability and are signalling they do not wish to make the Israeli-Palestinian issue a priority; second, the intense internal debates taking place within Hamas over the movement’s direction.
Even if Hamas is susceptible to influence by third parties, the West should not overreach or exaggerate its influence. The Islamist movement is uncertain and in flux but not about to abandon fundamental positions; getting it to accept the Quartet conditions as such is out of the question. Instead, acting in concert with Egypt and others, the U.S. and EU should set out to achieve changes that are at once less rhetorical, more meaningful and less onerous for Hamas.
These could include entering a more formal ceasefire agreement with Israel over Gaza; exerting efforts to help stabilise the situation in Sinai, the gravity of which was underscored by a 5 August attack by militants on Egyptian soldiers; reaffirming, as part of a unity deal, President Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel; and pledging to respect the outcome of a popular referendum by Palestinians on such an accord. In return, Hamas could benefit from reciprocal Israeli guarantees over a Gaza ceasefire; an improvement in the Strip’s economic status; and an assurance by the U.S. and EU that they would engage with a Palestinian unity government that carried out those commitments.
Egypt – even under the Muslim Brotherhood – shares objective interests with Israel on each of the above: it too wants to see calm in Gaza; it too would prefer to stabilise the situation in Sinai, as it has sought to do with a military campaign launched in reaction to the 5 August attack; and it too might benefit from resumed negotiations under Abbas’s aegis, which would help remove a potential irritant in U.S.-Egyptian relations, improve the overall regional climate and prepare the ground for a new peace process. Why not try to take advantage of this?
Twice in the past – after the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and after the 2007 Mecca unity accord – the international community missed the boat in its approach toward Hamas, adopting policies that produced almost precisely the reverse of what it expected: Hamas consolidated its control over Gaza; a war and dangerous flare-ups have occurred with Israel; Fatah has not been strengthened; democratic institutions in the West Bank and Gaza have decayed; and a peace deal is no closer. With a third chance coming, amid dramatic improvements in relations with Islamist movements region-wide, the West should make sure it is not, once more, left stranded at the dock.