Hamas Losing Grip in Strip

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is losing support from its patrons Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Islamic Jihad Militants launch rocket  in Gaza 521 (photo credit: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Islamic Jihad Militants launch rocket in Gaza 521
(photo credit: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
FOR SOME TIME, THE Hamas leadership and rank and file in the Gaza Strip have been behaving quite strangely.
Ever since its establishment, the Palestinian Authority (PA), under the leadership of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has urged the various Palestinian factions to act moderately and curb terrorist attacks against Israel. Hamas, in contrast, has consistently taken the opposite position and demanded that the attacks against Israel be increased.
“What was taken by force will only be brought back by force,” Hamas spokesmen declare, repeating, by rote, former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s old slogan. Hamas has stubbornly maintained that all of Yasser Arafat’s and Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic activity has been worthless and that the Palestinians must return to the armed struggle.
Yet now Hamas seems to have reversed its position. It is Hamas that is demanding that the Palestinian factions show restraint and stop terror attacks, while the more extreme Muslim groups, such as Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are committing attacks like the one near Eilat in mid-August and launching missiles and rockets at the towns and villages in southern Israel.
What’s happening? Have Hamas leaders, who managed to establish their rule in Gaza, come to understand that in order to maintain control they must behave in a more civilized manner? Or maybe the tremendous damage caused by Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent economic and diplomatic siege of Gaza have brought Hamas activists to reconsider their political course? Or could it be that the riots in Egypt and the Arab world have caused Hamas to adopt a different course? I referred these questions to a Gazan journalist, who replied that the main reason for the change in Hamas’s behavior is fear.
Hamas is terribly afraid of large-scale Israeli reprisals because they know that no one in the Arab world will intervene on their behalf.
The difficulties and upheavals of the “Arab spring” are so overwhelming that no one – from Morocco in the west, to Kuwait in east – will lift a finger to support the Palestinians in Gaza.
“They will let the IDF ruin the entire Gaza Strip,” my colleague told me.
Indeed, this would appear to be part of the answer. At the least, there is one thing that is obvious to anyone who takes a good look at what is happening in Gaza: Hamas has been drastically weakened. Time and time again, Hamas has demanded that the radical factions stop shooting at Israel and those groups have kept right on doing as they please. Sometimes they refuse to obey Hamas’s demands; other times, they obey. Suddenly it seems as if these small organizations enjoy tremendous support and have large arsenals of weapons, including rockets of every sort, at their disposal.
How did they manage all this? Did all this happen while Hamas wasn’t paying attention? Reports from the past few weeks have also indicated that Hamas guards had been patrolling the border with Israel in an – unsuccessful – attempt to stop the rocket launches.
THE MAIN REASONS FOR THE breakdown of Hamas’s grip on the Strip are diplomatic. It has long been obvious that there is bitter tension between Hamas and it patrons, which include Iran, Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon, which have been supporting them for many years. Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus is busy trying to survive, aided almost solely by the Iranians.
The Tehran regime asked Hamas to declare its support for Assad, but Hamas refused.
After all, no Palestinian can openly support Assad while TV networks broadcast horrific footage of Syrian forces bombarding a Palestinian refugee camp in the port city of Latakia or similar scenes of carnage in other Syrian towns where hundreds have been killed, including many Palestinians.
I have searched the Arab media for information about the Hamas officials who currently reside in Damascus. It appears they are trying to avoid taking a stand, and I certainly could not find any statements of support for Assad.
In this context, Iran has stopped, or at least drastically reduced, its aid to Gaza. That aid, primarily financial, has helped Hamas pay salaries to the nearly 50,000 government employees and security personnel.
Hamas’s coffers have also been reduced because smuggling activity through the tunnels on the Rafah border has been drastically cut back. Ever since the Israeli blockade began, in the summer of 2007, Hamas has maintained strict control over the tunnels, collecting taxes and other levies from all of the 400 different types of merchandise that came through any of the 1,000 tunnels. But following the Turkish flotilla incident last summer, Israel has eased the blockade and it is now possible to bring in merchandise and goods through the official crossings, which is cheaper and more convenient. Moreover, the new government in Egypt has partially opened the crossing from Rafah into Sinai; while trucks still cannot cross, the thousands of people who move back and forth from Egypt can carry in suitcases filled with goods.
So overall, the economy of the Gaza Strip is now much less dependent on the tunnels. As long as there was a full blockade of Gaza, the Hamas government managed to maintain its monopoly on the economy. The business sector in the Strip had completely collapsed.
There were no imports and no exports. All of Gaza lived off of two sources: the money that came in from Ramallah (since the government in Ramallah continued to pay salaries and to maintain the education and health systems in Gaza) and donations from numerous international organizations (primarily from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports refugees, who make up 60 percent of the population in Gaza).
Researchers such as Yitzhak Gal, of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, who prepared a paper for the Peres Peace Center, revealed that the economic siege actually worked in Hamas’s favor and strengthened its control: the worse the shortages, the more Hamas was able to allocate what little there was as it pleased, providing more benefits to its supporters and punishing its opposition.
But over the past few months, Hamas has been unable to pay those salaries. And without money, the administration is weak and factions like the PRC and the Islamic Jihad are no longer afraid of asserting their powers and capabilities.
The fact that the reconciliation treaty between the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza hasn’t been implemented also works to Hamas’s detriment. Even though Ramallah and the PLO are facing problems regarding their upcoming independence initiative at the UN, at least Abbas’s constant diplomatic activity is attracting significant international attention. Every day, the Palestinian media publishes several reports about President Abbas, Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki and a list of other Palestinian politicians and diplomats who are working in countries throughout the world – in Asia, Africa, and especially in Europe – to obtain support for their appeal for recognition from the UN.
And according to the press, these efforts are bearing fruit. With all this going on, who cares about politically paralyzed Hamas? IT IS WELL-KNOWN TO ALL THAT Hamas is essentially the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. All of Hamas’s leaders have studied and lived in Egypt, and they see themselves as part of the Egyptian movement. This isn’t merely a matter of organizational affiliation – their ideologies and social and political beliefs are identical.
But meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is confused and disoriented. On the one hand, they are well-organized and preparing themselves for the elections that are expected to take place in a few months. But on the other hand, their political positions are unclear. The new military administration has granted them legitimacy and there are signs that they have even established connections with American diplomats.
Yet, even though they have done so for years, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are no longer calling for the abrogation of the peace agreements with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t even been very prominent at the mass demonstrations in front of the Israeli and American Embassies in Cairo.
Following the terrorist attacks near Eilat in August, in which five Egyptian soldiers were also killed, sentiments on the Egyptian street have indeed been very anti-Israel and calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador are growing louder. But this time it’s not the Muslim Brotherhood that is fomenting anti- Israel feelings; rather, it is the other, more religious and nationalist, groups.
Hamas, too, is confused and disoriented.
In mid-August, Hamas government officials demanded that the international aid organizations working in Gaza open up their books and ledgers for inspection. Hamas was intimating that the organizations were distributing their funds according to political interests rather than actual need and were giving more to those who are allied with the PA and the PLO while rejecting those who are allied with Hamas.
But the American aid organizations refused to comply and representatives of the American administration made it clear that if Hamas didn’t back down, they would stop transferring the aid money to Gaza – and that aid comes to about $100 m. a year. At the very last minute, a compromise was reached and the crisis passed. The “compromise” was essentially a capitulation on the part of Hamas.
The Israeli government doesn’t recognize Hamas and refuses to engage in any negotiations with them, yet spokespeople in Jerusalem constantly declare that they regard Hamas as responsible for every terror attack that originates in Gaza. This position is becoming increasingly problematic, given Hamas’s weakened position.
But it should still be very clear that Hamas has no intention of giving up control over the Gaza Strip. It’s the only place in the world where the Muslim Brotherhood movement has actually been able to establish a government – and if they ever do decide to give up their rule, they’ll demand a high price in return. •