Will Hamas splinter as external leaders seek a new home?

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.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hams/Handout)
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hams/Handout)
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 did.
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.
As a 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 alike.
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 independence.
If the two factions cannot reconcile on this core issue, they may go their separate ways.
In truth, Hamas is already split in two.
The internal and external leaderships largely operate as separate entities.
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.
Since 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.
Hamas’s external leadership, headed by Khaled Mashaal, has been based in Damascus.
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 for years.
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 principles.
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 river.”
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.”
The prospect of a defanged Hamas is an attractive one, of course, but it’s not that simple.
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).