by Johannes Lutz
Founded in 1987 during the first Intifada, the Sunni fundamentalist Hamas looks back at 25 years of militant, political and social engagement among Palestinians. During these years, Hamas could successfully position itself as a vital alternative to Fatah, its secularist rival. This enduring engagement bore fruit in 2006, when Hamas surprisingly won the elections for the Palestinian Legislative council. A subsequent power struggle between the two fractions and the expulsion of Fatah from the Gaza Strip left Hamas as the sole authority in the enclave1. Establishing an authoritarian regime in the conquered Gaza Strip, Hamas found itself in a complex web of internal and external relations.
Three features shaped the first years after the takeover of the Gaza Strip. First, since its early years Hamas forged close ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the regimes in Syria and Iran. Interestingly, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are Shiite, and the Syrian regime is Shiite-linked. Hamas however is a Sunni movement that has its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood. What connected these quite different allies was their shared perception as an axis of resistance against the common opponent Israel2.
The close ties with these three allies can also be understood given the lack of possible Sunni allies in the region. The two Sunni states that have a common border with Israel both signed peace treaties with Israel. Egypt, in 1979, was the first Arab state that took this step, followed by Jordan in 1995. Both regimes were highly suspicious of Hamas: Jordan conducted a crackdown against Hamas in 1999 and expelled its leaders after allegations of illegal activities following the peace treaty with Israel3. Egypt’s then President Hosni Mubarak not only tried to suppress Hamas, but alongside with it most fundamental Muslim organizations that threatened his legitimacy4.
A third feature touches the internal relations of Hamas and can be traced back directly to the takeover in 2007. Now Hamas not only had an exile leadership that after the expulsion from Jordan opened its contact office in Syria in 20015. With the creation of the authoritarian regime in the Gaza Strip, a local Hamas leadership came into powerful positions. Whereas the exile leadership around Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was concerned with broader strategic considerations, the Gaza leadership around Prime Minister Ismail Hania aimed to consolidate its grip on the Gaza Strip6. Additionally, the Gaza leadership as sole authority in the enclave now had to take into account the wellbeing of its population, a dilemma that plunged it repeatedly into confrontation with the exile leadership that didn’t have to directly deal with Israeli retaliation strikes7.
Impact of the Egyptian and Syrian uprisings
The uprisings in Egypt and Syria against their secular authoritarian regimes mark turning points and directly affected the features outlined above. In March 2011, protests reached Syria. The regime suppressed the demonstrations with brutal force, which eventually paved the way to a wholesale civil war between the Shiite-linked regime and mainly Sunni opposition groups. Having its office since 2001 in Damascus, Hamas first tried to take a neutral stance. Only after Palestinians living in Syria came under attack from the Syrian regime and after the Palestinians in the Territories expressed their support for the opposition groups, Hamas sided with its Sunni fellows and gradually distanced itself from the Syrian regime. The Hamas exile leadership eventually shut down its office in Damascus and left the country in February 20138.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
These developments have to be understood in the context of the developments in Egypt. There, long time authoritarian ruler Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011 after countrywide protests. The following period can roughly be described as a power struggle between the Egyptian military that tried to secure its former influence and the Muslim Brotherhood which gradually appeared in the political sphere as the most vital opposition movement. In spring 2012, the Brotherhood received 40 percent of votes in the parliamentary elections. In June 2012, the candidate of the Brotherhood Mohammad Morsi won in the runoff elections for the Presidency against a representative of the old regime9.
The fall of Mubarak and the rise of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood were closely observed by Hamas. An offspring of the Brotherhood, Hamas cheered the election of Morsi. Since then, Hamas leaders are frequently seen guests in Cairo, thus demonstrating the opening of Egypt towards Hamas10. At the same time Morsi distanced himself sharply from the Syrian regime, a move that consolidated the split between Hamas and its former ally11. The deepening alliance with the Sunni world was matched later in the year by Qatar that doubled its investment into the Gaza Strip12. Also, Jordan for the first time since 1999 granted Hamas leaders the permission to enter the country13.
The Gaza and the Exile leaderships
These developments also affected the internal power structure of Hamas. Whereas the Gaza leadership gained the upper hand after the exile leadership left Damascus, this trend now seems to be reversed. Especially after the central role Morsi granted Meshal during the negotiations for a ceasefire during the fighting between Hamas and Israel in the fall of 2012 left the Gaza leadership on the sidelines14. The new setting indicates the growing self confidence of the exile leadership that is keen to position itself within the context of what it interprets as a “Muslim Awakening”. Under these conditions, Hamas might sharpen its profile as a political party in the umbrella of the Brotherhood rather than as fundamental resistance movement15. As a result, Hamas might show greater readiness for negotiations with other actors in the field16.
1 Boaz Ganor. 2013. “Israel and Hamas: Is War Imminent?” In: Orbis, Vol. 57, 120-134.
2 Mohns, Erik and André Bank. 2013. “Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?” In: Middle East Policy, Web. 2. April 2013.
3 Kumaraswamy, P.R. 2001. “The Jordan-Hamas Divorce.” In: Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 3, Web. 2. April 2013.
4 Reuters. 2010. “Mubarak takes hard line on Islamist groups seen as a threat to stability.” The National, Web. 2. April 2013.
5 De Quetteville, Harry. 2006. “The Hamas boss who is stoking resistance in Gaza...from the safety of Syria.” The Telegraph, Web. 2. April 2013.
6 Yaari, Ehud. 2012. “Secret Hamas Elections Point to Internal Struggle.” The Washington Institute, Web. 2. April 2013.
7 Boaz Ganor. 2013. “Israel and Hamas: Is War Imminent?” In: Orbis, Vol. 57, 120-134
8 Mertes, Michael and Joerg Knocha. 2012. “Hamas and the ‘Arab Spring’.” Country Report Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Web. 2. April 2013.
9 Tarek, Masoud. 2013. “The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? (review)” In: The Middle East Journal, Vol. 67, 142-143.
10 Reuters. 2012. “Hamas chief meets Egypt’s Morsi in Cairo, hails ‘new era’.” Haaretz, Web. 2. April 2013.
11 Al Jazeera. 2012. “Morsi Criticises Syria at Tehran meeting.” Al Jazeera, Web. 2. April 2013.
12 Al Jazeera. 2012. Web. 2. April 2013. “Qatari emir in historic Gaza visit.” Al Jazeera
13 Miller, ElHanan. 2012. “Jordan and Hamas to ’turn over a new leaf’.” The Times of Israel, Web. 2. April 2013.
14 The Economist. 2012. “Who represents us now?” The Economist, Web. 2. April 2013.
15 Macfarquhar, Neil. 2012. “Sunni Leaders gaining Clout in Mideast.” The New York Times, Web. 2. April 2013.
16 Berti, Benedetta. 2012. “Back to its Roots: Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” Diplomatic Courir, Web. 2. April 2013.