Analysis: Pawns in a Hamas power play

Holding an Israeli soldier and seeking to free a BBC reporter, Hamas is playing a cynical double game.

Gilad Shalit 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Shalit 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The two recordings to have come out of Gaza in the last 24 hours are poignant signals of Hamas's difficulties in establishing itself as a credible governing force in the small sliver of coast it now purports to control. In the first case, the video of Alan Johnston wearing an explosive waistcoat, the BBC reporter was shown imploring the British government and Hamas not to use military force to release him. The message was accompanied by "the Army of Islam" demand that Britain release various Islamist terrorists it holds. A similar demand was heard in the audio recording of IDF Corporal Gilad Schalit: that Israel free over 1,000 prisoners in return for his release. The difference is that, in this case, it was Hamas acting as the captors announcing the ransom. But in both cases, the prisoners are not the main objective. Hamas is seeking political capital out of both captives. Since it took over the Gaza Strip 10 days ago, Ismail Haniyeh's increasingly isolated government has been trying to bring about Johnston's release. It is part of the struggle still going on within Gaza for control of a number of strongholds controlled by tribal gangs and clans. Into these areas, Hamas fighters advance at their peril. One such clan is the Dughmush family, who are holding Johnston. What it really wants in return for his release is an assurance from Hamas that it will keep its fiefdom. But Hamas is interested in something much more significant than a turf war. Haniyeh's hope is that by delivering Johnston safely, he will achieve a degree of legitimacy from the Western governments currently supporting Abu Mazen's new government in Ramallah and also secure the friendship of one of the world's major media organizations. Last week, Hamas was poised to attack the Dughmush compound but backed off when it realized that a dead Johnston would only make things much worse. But Haniyeh joining the "Free Alan" campaign has already paid off for Hamas in the form of unofficial contacts with the British government. The release of the Schalit tape, ostensibly timed for the anniversary of his capture, is based on the same motive - Hamas's effort to break the international isolation. In the past, the captors had said that any new information on the soldier would be released only in return for Israeli concessions, but the Sharm e-Sheikh summit, aimed at keeping Hamas out of the picture, forced their hand. Hamas might not be prepared to acknowledge Israel's right to exist but it certainly wants to talk with us. Now that there are two competing Palestinian governments, Schalit is all the more valuable to Hamas as its main opening for a dialogue with Israel. So valuable, indeed, that in contrast to the Johnston video, there was no threat to kill Schalit. It is a sign of Hamas's desperation for recognition and contact with the outside world that it is so eager now to prove he is alive. And the eagerness to put out the new message comes at the cost of coordination. Whoever wrote the text read by Schalit seems to have made a mistake when he inserted the sentence "my health is still deteriorating, and I need a prolonged hospitalization," which ran counter to previous statements that his health is intact. Hamas spokesmen who flocked to be interviewed by Israeli TV and radio channels in the hours after the tape was broadcast assured their audiences that Schalit was receiving medical treatment. The smooth and cynical transition of the Hamas leadership between Johnston's would-be liberators and Schalit's captors is proof of the double-dealing game it is playing but also of the difficult balancing act it is striving to bring off. Hamas is competing with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, and trying to win approval from its Iranian paymasters, while simultaneously appealing for recognition from the "moderate" Arab states. Without appearing to give in, it is trying to engage Israel and stop the Western nations from boosting Abu Mazen at its expense. Johnston and Schalit have become major pieces in this Hamas game. "The story of Johnston, and to a greater extent Schalit, was never just about prisoner exchanges," says Arnon Regular, a veteran Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs. "They were always bargaining chips, intended to achieve more than the release of prisoners and material demands. Hamas used Schalit in the past to wring political concessions out of Abu Mazen, in the formation of the national unity government and in the attempt to remove the economic blockade." Schalit and Johnston are now more than ever pawns in the internal Palestinian power struggle. Hamas's efforts to release the reporter and to assure Israel of the wellbeing of its soldier show that the containment policy towards "Hamastan" is working, at least for now. The Egyptian-brokered negotiations over Schalit's release might have broken down as a result of the Palestinian chaos, but Hamas is now in a position where it would have a lot to gain if it showed some flexibility.