Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip, recently held internal elections. The polls were for the Gaza Political Bureau and Shura Council, often described as the movement’s parliament. Hamas holds its votes in secret, and tries to prevent the outside world from gaining knowledge of the movement’s internal political processes. However, it has become clear that the elections represented a significant victory for Hamas’s Gaza leadership. This came at the expense of the formerly Damascus-based external leadership group of Khaled Meshaal, which is now scattered across the region.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is now the head of the Gaza Political Bureau. This is the top movement position in the Strip. He is the first to hold this title since Abd al-Aziz Rantisi was killed by Israel in 2004.
The latest victory of the Gaza leaders may be a step on the road to their capture of the overall leadership of Hamas. This advance, in turn, may be traced back to two key elements.
First, the Gaza leaders possess power, a key element that their rivals lack. They hold real political and administrative power and control over the lives of the 1.7 million inhabitants of Gaza and of the 365 square kilometers in which they live. Second: the upheavals in the Arab world — and specifically the civil war in Syria — have served to severely weaken the formerly Damascus-based external leadership, depleting the value of the assets they held in the competition with the internal Gaza leaders.
The nature of the regime created by Hamas in Gaza, and its strength and durability, has received insufficient attention in the West. This may have a political root: Western governments feel the need to keep alive the fiction of the long-dead peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the necessary components of this is pretending that the historic split between nationalists and Islamists among the Palestinians has not really happened, or that it is a temporary glitch that will soon be reconciled. This fiction is necessary for peace process believers, because it enables them to continue to treat the West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as the sole representative of the Palestinians.
But fiction it is. An Islamist one-party quasi-state has been built in Gaza over the last half-decade. The prospects for this enclave and its importance in the period ahead have been immeasurably strengthened by the advances made by Hamas’ fellow Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
Hamas has created a unique, Sunni Islamist form of authoritarian government in the Gaza Strip. It has successfully crushed all political opposition. It has created a security system in which a movement militia, the Qassam Brigades, exists alongside supposedly non-political security forces which are themselves answerable to Hamas-controlled ministries. It has imposed the will of the Hamas government on the formerly PA-controlled judiciary, and has simultaneously created a parallel system of Islamic courts.
The result of all this is that there is today no serious challenge to Hamas control of Gaza.
Against this center of real-world power, the external Hamas leadership faced the prospect of growing irrelevance in recent years. It was saved from this irrelevance because it controlled the foreign contacts — most importantly with Iran — that brought the donations vital to the survival of the Gaza enclave. This money in turn underwrote the existence of the Qassam Brigades, and hence made any challenge from Gaza to the external leadership unfeasible.
Then the “Arab Spring” came to Syria, home base of the external leadership. Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood franchise, faced a dilemma. The Iran-led regional alliance of which it was a part was crushing an uprising at least partially led by its fellow Muslim Brothers in Syria.
Hamas made its choice — in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, Iranian donations have rapidly depleted. The external leadership has scattered in a number of directions from Damascus: Meshaal is in Qatar; Mousa Abu Marzook is in Cairo; Imad Alami has returned to Gaza. There are members as far afield as Istanbul and Khartoum.
The internal leadership, meanwhile, has increased revenues from the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. This is helping to make up for the decline in Iranian support.
Reports suggest that control of the movement’s budget and of the Qassam Brigades has now been removed from Meshaal, though he retains his formal position as the movement’s overall leader. The internal leadership also headed off an attempt by Meshaal to cobble together a “reconciliation” deal with the West Bank PA in February. Such a deal would have required Hamas to dismantle the structures of its government in Gaza.
Palestinian nationalism has traditionally favored words and gestures over concrete deeds. This is one of the sources for its historical failure to produce anything much tangible of note. Palestinian Islamism has a different approach: in line with the traditional strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, it understands the importance of concrete, patient building on the ground.
This does not mean that Hamas in Gaza has lost sight or will lose sight of the maximalist ideological goals of the movement. It does mean, however, that the split in the Palestinian national movement should now finally be internalized as a long-term development. The more formidable, serious element of that movement is in control of Gaza. The Islamist one-party statelet in Gaza, in turn, is allied with the trend that is proving the major beneficiary of the Arab upheavals of 2011 — namely, Sunni Islamism.
If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt, Hamas-controlled Gaza may yet become a point of strategic importance as a friction point with Israel, which could lead to broader tensions.