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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.