Despite its success of rebelling Israeli military advances in Gaza, Hamas’s regional political maneuvers of recent years are not bearing fruits. Jointly isolated by Israel and other Arab parties, unaided by the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas, the Islamic Resistance Movement is once again facing difficult choices, and it seems to be choosing a cautious return to its old camp of Iran and Hezbollah. The maneuver this time is particularly risky.
Hamas’ other options, however, are too limited or simply don’t exist. The movement is facing formidable challenges: a mired economy, ruined infrastructure, destroyed Rafah tunnels and a persisting Israeli siege.
The progress of the Hamas-Fatah agreement last year, followed by the formation of a new government, were meant to be prerequisites to other anticipated moves, including the reformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The once promising push for unity was interrupted by Israel’s massive war, the so-called Operation Protective Edge, which killed and wounded thousands. The war also left the already distraught Gaza in its worse shape yet.
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Instead of speedily setting up government ministries in Gaza, funneling money into the devastated Strip and beginning the reconstruction process right away, the Ramallah-based government of Rami Hamdallah delayed everything in what could only be understood as political reasoning. Without an outlet, however restricted, Gaza will not be able to cope for much longer.
Hamas’s attempt at engaging Egypt as a way of finding an alternative space to break the siege has not achieved results either. Egypt declared Hamas a terrorist organization last March. More recently, the military wing of Hamas, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades found itself banned and accused of ‘terrorism’ by an Egyptian court.
With the tunnels destroyed, and a ‘buffer zone’ being established and fortified around the Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side of the border, the siege is now complete.
Yet Gaza could have survived, except that the Israeli war has left behind thousands of homeless families, over 11,000 wounded and entrenched in poverty.
A donors’ conference in Cairo last year pledged to rebuild Gaza, but few have delivered. The United Nations and the Arab League are back appealing for aid promises to be met. But even if they do, the US and its allies insist that the money is not channeled through Hamas.
So, what is Hamas to do?
Prior to so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the region was divided in two political camps. One is known as the ‘axis of resistance’, also the ‘rejectionist’ camp. It consists of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The other is the camp of ‘moderates’ which pools US regional allies. The latter was positioned to offset the former.
Then, the Sunni-Shia divide existed, but was hardly as pronounced as it is today. The existence of Hamas, a Sunni organization within a largely Shia-group and the clear demarcation of the fight that is between the US-Israel vs. the ‘axis of resistance’ relegated any sectarian difference as insignificant.
Initially, the Spring brought ample promise, before it dealt the whole region a massive blow. It wrought war and other bloody conflicts, but also unprecedented political and sectarian polarization.
A war in Syria seemed like a best case scenario for various western powers, including the US and Israel. Iran, Russia and Arab countries jumped into the fray, each with a different set of objectives. For Iran, war arguably became its opportunity to extend its regional influence. With Hezbollah joining the fighting – which by then included numerous groups that are homegrown and foreign – the Sunni-Shia side of the conflict became palpable.
Neither side would have allowed Hamas to operate outside the ugly sectarian paradigm anyway. The group was expected to take sides, and quickly.
Meanwhile, Palestinians remained disunited even when their unity mattered most. Abbas’s PA remained engaged in an inane ‘peace process’ discourse, paying little attention to the thousands of dead and starving Palestinian refugees in Syria.
Hamas’s gamble didn’t pay off in the least. Further impoverished and isolated, Hamas sought respite by joining forces with Abbas’s Fatah, to end division and seek an outlet from what became a hopeless paradigm.
Then, Israel attacked Gaza. The media discussion was centered on Hamas’s unproven connection to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenage settlers. That was rarely the story. With Hamas’s departure from the ‘axis of resistance’ and its isolation by the ‘moderate’ Arab camp, the movement was at its weakest. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found an opportunity to deliver a final blow to Hamas as he hit Gaza with unmatched brutality. He intended to break Hamas politically before degrading its military capabilities.
The massive destruction of the Gaza infrastructure was not Israel’s everyday callousness in its treatment of Palestinians. It was meant to ensure that Hamas would have no chance to govern Gaza after the war, and simply collapse under the impossible task to rebuild the Strip, with no aid, no cement and no material lifeline whatsoever.
Arabs were either consumed with their own problems or watched Gaza’s severe punishment by Israel with a mix of dread, amusement and anticipation. Those who urged Hamas to part ways with Iran failed to move forward and fill the existing gap of weapons, money and other material aid. Not only did many in Hamas see that as a betrayal, others who never sought a break up with Iran began pushing the movement to reconsider its political alliances once more.
In fact, the process of mending ties with Iran has been in the making for months, and many – however imprecise – signs of some kind of rapprochement between Iran and Hezbollah on one hand, and Hamas on the other, have been adding up towards a foreseeable conclusion.
When an Israeli helicopter gunship hit a car convey in the Syrian province of Quneitra on Jan 18, killing six Hezbollah fighters along with an Iranian commander, Hamas was quick to offer condolences. The most notable of these messages came from Mohammed al-Deif, the leader of the al-Qassam Brigades. Deif called for the directing of rifles in a joint battle against Israel.
Political messages also poured in, one from former Hamas government Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “We declare our full solidarity with Lebanon and the Lebanese resistance,” he said, calling for unity against the ‘principal enemy of the ummah’. This, in addition to Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshaal’s call for peaceful resistance in Syria, indicating that the Hamas search for a return to the Iran camp was a matter of time.
In fact, that return will happen sooner rather than later, as suggested by Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh’s former top advisor, and an influential member in the movement. He said that Meshaal should be heading to Tehran soon to meet with top Iranian leaders.
Hamas’s possible return to the Iran camp is likely to be cautious, calculated and possibly costly. There is a crisis of trust among all parties. For some in Hamas, however, that return was inevitable.
But Iran and Hezbollah also need Hamas, at least to break away from the dominant sectarian narrative that has embroiled the region. Iran and Hezbollah’s image, the latter once seen as the bulwark of resistance, is at an all-time low.
Some will chastise Hamas’s new strategy, others will praise its return to common sense. But for Hamas and Palestinian resistance in Gaza, it is a mere matter of survival.