Hussein Ibish

Hamas on the move

Hamas is on the move, both literally and figuratively, but how far it can and will go very much remains to be determined.

Hamas is in an impossible position, given the regional realignments following from the Arab uprisings, and is frantically trying to adjust without paying too high a price.

For more than a decade, Hamas’ strategy was based on being simultaneously allied with both the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network and the, essentially, Shiite, Iranian-led alliance. This incongruous ideological contortion was made possible by a narrative embraced by both of these broader anti-status quo alignments: that the Middle East was the site of a trans-historic battle between a "culture of resistance" and a "culture of accommodation."

This narrative has collapsed completely, and is rapidly being replaced by a new sectarian order pitting Sunni actors, including both Arab governments and Islamists, as well as Turkey, against what is now perceived as the non- or even anti-Sunni alliance led by Iran. This realignment has been most starkly illustrated in Syria, whose pro-Iranian government is now supported entirely by non-Sunni forces in the Middle East and opposed by virtually all Sunni ones.

Hamas can no longer have a foot in each of these camps when they are increasingly at odds, often in existential ways. The movement’s political bureau cannot long remain based in Damascus since the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a core part of the uprising trying to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The break with Assad also means a break with Tehran.

Hamas needs not only a new home but also new sponsors and a new regional profile, since the strategic landscape in which it operates has shifted so dramatically.

Literally on the move, its de facto "prime minister" in Gaza, Ismail Haniyyeh, is planning a tour of Arab states, beginning with Qatar and possibly including Turkey. Khaled Meshaal, who heads Hamas’ political bureau, meanwhile, has been trying to engineer a reconciliation with Jordan, and has been planning a trip there that has yet to happen. Both sides insist this has not been canceled.

Figuratively on the move, Meshaal, according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed that resistance to occupation must be nonviolent and must seek to create a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. A spokesman for Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to confirm these commitments, but reiterated that Hamas would not recognize Israel.

This apparently difficult readjustment has exposed latent tensions within Hamas. The organization is divided along multiple axes, but the most obvious is the division between many in the leadership in Gaza, which is entrenched in power and only stands to lose from any changes, and the external leadership, which has no choice but to urgently find new headquarters and patrons.

This squabble has been most publicly expressed in an ongoing feud between Meshaal and the Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar. In May, Zahhar was harshly critical of Meshaal for recognizing the authority of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization to negotiate with Israel. Worse still, he questioned the authority of the political bureau itself, claiming, "the leadership is here [in Gaza], and the part that is abroad is just a part of that."

However, Meshaal reportedly retains the support of key Hamas leaders, including Ahmed Jabari, the head of its paramilitary Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades. The group reportedly imposed "severe disciplinary measures" against Zahhar in response to his challenge to the authority of Meshaal and the political bureau.

The big question is whether Hamas’ need to adjust to the changing Arab political order will compel the movement to moderate its positions. Probably not if Hamas can help it, for it remains locked in a long-term power struggle with Fatah over leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Yet its ability to remain a viable contender for such leadership cannot be based on Islamist social conservatism alone. If it cannot outbid the PLO when it comes to the struggle with Israel, it’s hard to see what its broad appeal will be.

Hamas is hoping that the Arab uprisings will strengthen its hand by bringing its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in numerous Arab states. It has reportedly recently formally joined an international umbrella group of the Brotherhood movement. But as it has to abandon the Iranian-Syrian alliance and explore deeper relations with Qatar, Egypt and even Jordan, Hamas will be dealing with states that, at least for now, will not be willing to take responsibility for the movement’s traditional policies and actions.

The outcome of the Arab uprisings and realignment writ large will probably determine the future of Hamas. Fatah, too, will have to adjust to the emerging strategic and political environment. These new regional realities will probably affect the future of both organizations more than anything the Palestinian groups decide independently or between themselves.

Hussein Ibish is a weekly columnist for Now Lebanon and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.