Who is calling the shots in Hamas?

In Gaza, a divided Hamas tries to decide on a renewed truce.

khaled mashaal 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
khaled mashaal 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Friday, Hamas is expected to announce its final position regarding the cease-fire with Israel that expires on the same day. During the past week, Hamas officials issued contradictory statements as to whether they would agree to the extension of the truce, which they refer to as a tahadiyeh (period of calm), sparking speculation about sharp differences among the movement's top brass. The reports about a split in Hamas coincided with the movement's celebration of its 21st anniversary - an event that saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians attend Hamas's main rally in Gaza City earlier this week. Sources close to Hamas admitted Wednesday that the dispute between the Hamas leaders was driven not only by personal jealousies, but also by differences of opinion over tactics and strategy. The sources revealed that "external powers" were also responsible for the bickering. These powers included Iran, Syria and Qatar - three countries that maintain good relations with Hamas. The divisions surfaced earlier this week when Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, announced that his movement was not going to renew the cease-fire. Mashaal's statement caught the Hamas leaders in Gaza by surprise. Many of them were quick to announce that Hamas still hadn't taken a final position on an extension of the truce. Some Hamas figures in the Strip said (in private) that the movement had no choice but to continue with the tahadiyeh, while others openly supported Mashaal's position. The squabbling among Hamas's political leadership later reached the movement's armed group, Izzadin Kassam. Masked gunmen claiming to represent the armed wing held separate news conferences, where they, too, made conflicting statements on the cease-fire issue. Some Palestinian analysts believe that Hamas is deliberately issuing contradictory statements in a ploy to pressure Israel and Egypt to reopen the border crossings to the Gaza Strip. Others, however, believe that the divisions in Hamas are genuine. "Hamas will eventually accept the truce with Israel, but they want to gain something in return," said an analyst in Gaza City. "For now they are being vague about their position with the hope that they could extract concessions from both Israel and Egypt." The analyst said Hamas had come under fire from many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the past six months of the cease-fire because they didn't feel that their lives had changed remarkably. "As far as many Palestinians were concerned, Hamas did not get anything out of the cease-fire agreement," he added. "People criticized Hamas for making a deal with Israel without ensuring that the border crossings would be reopened and travel restrictions would be lifted." Another analyst from the West Bank said Mashaal and the "outside" leadership of Hamas were under pressure from Iran and Syria not to renew the unwritten cease-fire agreement. He said the Iranians and Syrians were determined to deny Egypt the diplomatic victory it would gain by orchestrating another deal between Hamas and Israel. Damascus and Teheran, the analyst continued, were also responsible for the failure of Cairo's efforts to convene a "national reconciliation" conference to solve the Fatah-Hamas dispute last month. The conference was called off at the last minute after Mashaal informed the Egyptians that he wasn't going to participate. Mashaal's decision to boycott the Egyptian-sponsored gathering, which also caught the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip by surprise, was seen as another sign of the growing tensions in the movement. According to some sources in the Gaza Strip, several Hamas leaders even accused Mashaal of "damaging" their movement's relations with Egypt. The sources said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas figures later apologized to the Egyptians for the embarrassment. The sources claimed that the tensions in Hamas were mainly the result of Mashaal's desire to become the unchallenged leader of the movement. "Mashaal can't tolerate the fact that other Hamas leaders are stealing the show," the sources said. "Ismail Haniyeh, for example, is much more popular among the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip than Mashaal. Look what happened this week when Haniyeh appeared before a crowd of more than 200,000 people. He was welcomed as the 'future president of Palestine.' Mashaal was hardly mentioned during the rally." But apart from the personal jealousies, the Hamas leaders also appear to be divided over strategy. While some argue that a cease-fire is in Hamas's interest because the movement needs a "lull" and should not provide Israel with an excuse to invade the Gaza Strip, others insist that the rocket and terror attacks on Israel are the only means to extract further concessions from Jerusalem. The Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip is keen on renewing the truce for various reasons. One reason is that Haniyeh and Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar know very well that a military escalation would mean they would be the first to be targeted by Israel. The two are currently trying to convince Mashaal and the "outside" leadership of Hamas to accept their stance and to sign on to an agreement with Israel, even if that means that the border crossings would remain closed for now.