This week, leading Gaza- Hamas activist Salah al-Bardawil told The Guardian newspaper that in the event of a war between Iran and Israel, Hamas would not back Teheran. Hamas Foreign Minister in Gaza Mahmoud Zahar later appeared to refute Bardawil’s stance, saying that Hamas would respond “with utmost power” to any “Zionist war on Iran.”
These statements reflect confusion and divisions in the main Palestinian- Islamist movement. The confusion derives from the variety of options which the Arab upheavals of 2011 have placed before Hamas.
The divisions also reflect the resultant opening of separate and competing power structures in the movement, with the leaders of the Gaza statelet opposing the overall leadership, and also quarreling among themselves.
The Teheran-led “resistance axis,” with which Hamas was aligned, is one of the main victims of the Arab upheavals of the last year. Meanwhile, the clear winner from the upheavals so far is the ideological trend of which Hamas is a representative – namely, Sunni Islamism.
Revolt in Iran-aligned Syria has left the Iranians exposed as a narrow, sectarian force. Their claim to represent a general Muslim interest against the West and Israel is in disarray. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Sunni Islamist elements are moving to benefit from the fall of authoritarian leaders.
Hamas’s close relationship with Iran is of long standing, dating back to the mid 1990s. Iranian help formed a vital factor in turning the Palestinian Islamist movement into a formidable terrorist force in the second intifada of 2000-2004. Following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Iranian aid increased in both volume and importance for Hamas.
Yet with all this, the alliance between Iran and Hamas always had the nature of a marriage of convenience. Unlike Hezbollah, the Sunni Hamas was not a creation of the Iranians, and did not subscribe to the Shiaderived Iranian-ruling ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih (leadership of the jurisprudent).
Hamas still has a deep connection to Palestinian politics. It emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and inherited the extensive social and educational network and the ideological outlook of the Brotherhood.
There are also those within the movement – particularly within its armed wing – who adhere to the radically anti-Shia Salafi trend within Sunni Islamism.
Hamas’s relationship with Iran derived from the somewhat binary nature of regional politics prior to 2011. The US-led and Iran-led regional blocs were facing off against one another. As Hamas PLC member Musehir al-Masri put it in 2007, Hamas and Iran had their differences, yet alliance with Iran was “a thousand times more preferable than relying on the Americans and Zionists.”
Implicitly, there were only two choices, and Hamas’s preference was obvious. As a result of the events of 2011, there are no longer only two choices. Hamas is split regarding which path to take.
The situation in Syria was the immediate spark for Hamas’s move away from the “resistance axis.” The movement was placed in an impossible situation, in which its host, the Assad regime, was engaged in the wholesale slaughter of a largely Sunni-Arab uprising.
The signs of discomfort have been apparent for months.
Hamas’s Damascus offices are empty and Khaled Masha’al left the Syrian capital for Doha. The movement’s key leaders are now in Qatar, Cairo, or its Gaza fiefdom.
The move has left Mashaal weakened. A power struggle is consequently under way between the Gaza-based leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud. Zahar, on the one hand, and Masha’al and the formerly Damascus-based element, on the other. Attitudes toward Iran are one of the elements in this disagreement.
The distancing from Iran appears to imply a move away from a focus on military methods and toward an emphasis on anti- Israel propaganda and popular agitation. But there is no overall agreement regarding the extent of the shift, and attitudes toward it have become enveloped in the larger power struggle under way.
Important elements among the Gaza leadership do not wish to stray too far from the Iranians. Hamas, to maintain its Gaza fiefdom, still needs Iran’s expertise and its weaponry. There is no obvious Qatari or Saudi substitute for this.
The latest reports suggest that a new terrorist body, the “Aqsa Defenders” is emerging from within Hamas in Gaza. Like Fatah’s Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this body may be used for deniable paramilitary activity, even as Hamas pursues other avenues of activity.
Haniyeh’s visit to Iran and Zahar’s latest statement suggest that in the period ahead, Hamas will seek to maintain some level of Iranian support, while at the same time developing relations with the authorities in Egypt and Qatar. Being in the midst of an internal contest, Hamas lacks the consensus necessary for a hard “either-or” decision with regard to its alliances.
Therefore Hamas’s move away from the resistance axis should not be seen in terms of a clean break, and a clean break with political violence is equally unlikely.
Still, the distancing by Hamas from the Iran-led bloc, and its move back in the direction of the Sunni-Arabs, is reason for some quiet satisfaction in Israel. It represents a considerable setback for the regional alliance, which still constitutes by far the most serious strategic threat to Jerusalem.
A Hamas aligned more closely with Qatar would be equally politically intransigent, and if the Qatar and Egypt-sponsored reconciliation with Fatah succeeds, this will end any realistic hopes for a diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians in the foreseeable future. Nor will Hamas entirely eschew violence.
The Qataris and their ilk deal in a politics of gesture and propaganda vis-a-vis Israel, but remain dependent on the West for protection against the real menace of Iran. They lack the genuine ideological fervor, seriousness and readiness for real war of the Iran-led regional alliance.
Hamas’s move in the direction of Doha and Cairo, and subsequent internal squabbling, means the weakening of the most important alliance arrayed against Israel – and the beginning of a period of flux and division for the main Palestinian Islamist movement.