Despite talk of popular pique at Khaled Mashaal because of his accumulated wealth and his impetuous goading of Israel from the safe distance of 1,900 kilometers while the Gaza Strip suffered carnage and devastation, the Hamas leader- in-exile has nevertheless emerged from the monthlong siege of Gaza with a solid majority of Gazans feeling he casts a “positive” image. According to one Palestinian pundit, Mashaal is rising from the ashes of Gaza as the figure its residents most desire to lead them.
According to Dr. Hani Albasoos, a Gaza-based security and political analyst, it’s exactly the distance between Gaza and Doha, where Mashaal lives, that was instrumental in honing his image and solidifying his leadership role.
Other leaders – the ones who remained in Gaza, albeit underground during the fighting – were removed from the public’s daily perception, Albasoos told The Media Line. “You could not see any one of them because they might be a target for an Israeli air strike.”
Mashaal has an edge over Gaza’s shut-in leadership in his ability to move around and be seen constantly on television, often from Qatar. His prominence in the Egyptian-mediated talks also provided him with access to Cairo that would arguably have been denied to him because of Hamas’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, banned and vilified by the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The 58-year-old Hamas leader was born near Jerusalem and moved to Kuwait shortly after the outbreak of the 1967 war and joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971. When former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, Mashaal moved to Jordan, where he became the Hamas bureau chief.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suffered one of the greatest embarrassments of his first term of office in 1997 when he ordered Mashaal poisoned for his role in attacks against Israeli citizens. But the assassination attempt failed and resulted in a deal struck between Netanyahu and an angry King Hussein, through which Mashaal was provided with the antidote to the poison.
Following years of living in Damascus under the protection of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mashaal was in all practicality exiled again as the civil war heated up, placing the Hamas leader in an uncomfortable political position. His move to Doha was predictable, based on the strong support Qatar provides to Hamas.
Once the fighting began in the Gaza Strip, his access and visibility became far greater than Gaza-based chief Ismail Haniyeh or any of his other comrades, and according to many made him the best choice to lead Hamas.
In the opinion of Albasoos, the Mashaal paradigm will stay around for the foreseeable future.
“Any leader of Hamas that follows will have to be outside of Palestine, because he will have to have freedom of movement and a relationship with the international community,” the Islamic University professor told The Media Line.
He said Hamas was losing popularity during the four or five months leading up to the Gaza war but has since regained what was lost and added to it as a result of its confrontation with Israel.
“Because of its ability to fight the occupation forces, it gained more popularity, and if we have elections now, Hamas will most likely win,” he said.
During the first two weeks of fighting, the Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) polled 300 West Bank Palestinians and 150 Palestinians deemed to be “opinion leaders” on issues relating to the war.
Because of the war, it was not possible to poll Gazans.
The result of the citizens’ poll was that 66 percent of West Bankers – presumed to be Fatah-leaning – believed Mashaal played a positive role during the Gaza war, while only 13% felt Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s role was equally positive. Although the “opinion leaders” disagreed, finding Mashaal’s role as negative, they did agree that “Abbas did not do a good job.”
“For the first time in three or four years, we’ve seen that support for Hamas has increased and bypassed Fatah in the West Bank,” said AWRAD director-general Dr. Nader Saeed.
Hamas polled 31% “positive” to Fatah’s 25%.
“This is a major decline for support of Fatah – from 40% – and that’s an 11% increase of support for Hamas. For Mashaal, in terms of the resistance, in terms of the war in Gaza, he is doing well because he is part of a product position. But personally, I don’t think he has a chance [of winning out over Fatah/Abbas] among Palestinians because he is outside of Palestine and is seen as a follower of regional politics instead of Palestinian politics,” opined Saeed.
He also predicted that Hamas’s popularity will revert to prewar levels and Mashaal’s personal popularity along with it. Disagreeing with Albasoos, he said Palestinians will ultimately favor former Hamas prime minister Haniyeh.
Saeed said the bigger question is what the future holds for Abbas and Fatah and whether their popularity will return. The Palestinian president was harshly criticized for having what was perceived to be an inactive role and for keeping a low profile during the Gaza war.
“I don’t think Abbas and Fatah will be able to return to their prewar standing,” he said.
Hamas is going through a crisis and is trying to present itself as a defender of Palestinian rights, Saeed said. But the reality is that Hamas is relying on Qatar and Turkey to support its position, while it’s Egypt that is “the main pillar of Palestinian politics. People know that Egypt has fought wars for Palestine,” he said.
Jordan-based analyst Daoud Kuttab agreed that “Mashaal and Hamas came out of the war stronger than they were before the fighting.”
But “I don’t think this popularity will be long lived and I doubt it will translate directly to high votes in national elections,” he told The Media Line.
“Qatar has acted as it has in the past using its money, media and other influences to remind the world that Qatar exists and must be taken seriously,” he said.
The Egyptian website Dotmasr quoted a former Egyptian official as saying Qatar paid Hamas $50 billion not to agree to the first ceasefire proposed by Egypt, the acceptance of which would arguably have prevented 90% of the Palestinian casualties.
But Albasoos is skeptical of the report, calling it “baseless.”
Kuttab said he would have liked Abbas or at least PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to be in Gaza during the war.
“But,” he said, “the time for politics is after the guns stop.”