December 21 was a big day in Palestinian politics, as the terrorist group Hamas
reportedly agreed to join the Palestine Liberation Organization. If Hamas seals
the deal, it is widely expected that it will renounce violence just as the PLO
But it may not be that simple. Hamas cadres are not of one mind on
key issues such as the use of violence and political participation.
result, Hamas could splinter.
Hamas, it should be noted, was a splinter
group in its inception. After the outbreak of the 1987 intifada against Israel,
when the Muslim Brotherhood remained committed to non-violence, a militant
faction formed Hamas as a jihadi group to target Israelis, military and civilian
We may now be witnessing a mirror image of that process. While
some mainstream Hamas figures are calling for an end to the group’s 24-year
campaign of violence in hopes of gaining international legitimacy by integrating
with newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood factions around the region, other
figures within Hamas insist that jihad is the only way to achieve
If the two factions cannot reconcile on this core issue,
they may go their separate ways.
In truth, Hamas is already split in
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The internal and external leaderships largely operate as separate
Ismail Haniyeh, who heads its internal leadership in the Gaza
Strip, has for four years been regarded as the strongman of the territory, which
Hamas took by force from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
assuming the role of a government, Haniyeh and his comrades have been forced to
adopt some more pragmatic positions.
Indeed, attacking Israel almost
always elicits retaliation, a cause for consternation among the 1.8 million
people living under Hamas rule.
As a result, Hamas has halted most of its
terrorist activity. Thus, despite the fact that Hamas has continued to build an
arsenal, Gaza has remained largely calm since early 2009.
external leadership, headed by Khaled Mashaal, has been based in
Mashaal and his cadres are traditionally viewed as the more
radical branch of the organization, owing to their close and continuing contacts
with Syria and Iran, which have provided them with cash, weapons and training
Now, however, international financial sanctions in response to
Iran’s nuclear program have hindered the Islamic Republic’s ability to bankroll
Hamas, and domestic opposition to the Assad regime in Syria has spurred the
external leadership to abandon Damascus.
The prospect of losing a safe
haven and cash has prompted Mashaal to recalculate, and figures close to him now
say they are mulling a new strategy of non-violence in hopes of finding a new
Arab state in which to take refuge.
WHILE SOME Hamas members may be
willing to forsake violence after more than two decades of suicide bombings and
rocket attacks on civilians, others refuse to bend on their founding
On the anniversary of Hamas’ founding in early December,
Haniyeh himself reiterated that “armed resistance and armed struggle are the
strategic way to liberate the Palestinian land from the sea to the
And even as Hamas leaders began talking of non-violence, the
group’s armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, announced that Haniyeh sought
to form an Arab army to “liberate Jerusalem.”
For now, it appears that
Haniyeh and his cohorts have adopted a more radical posture, while Mashaal and
friends have adopted a more conciliatory one. In other words, they have swapped
stances. But consensus is nevertheless building among observers of the
Palestinian scene that there is a “new Hamas in the making.”
of a defanged Hamas is an attractive one, of course, but it’s not that
If Hamas does renounce violence, it will create a vacuum. This is
exactly happened in the late 1980s, when the Yasser Arafat’s PLO renounced
terrorism. It was the upstart Hamas that quickly filled that void, establishing
a reputation as a headline-grabbing terror group that promised to deliver what
the PLO could not: the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic
state of Palestine.
If Hamas joins the PLO, could a new Hamas splinter
fill the void? Perhaps. But even if it isn’t Hamas, another jihadist group will
likely emerge. No matter what it’s called, we can count on Hamas members being
part of it.
Whatever changes Hamas makes, the violent ideology it has
preached for a quarter century will continue to guide its foot soldiers for
years to come.
The writer is vice president for research at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of
Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle
for Palestine (Palgrave 2008).
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