Ismail Haniya delivers a speech after the conflict in Gaza. (Ahmed Zakot / Courtesy Reuters)
[Originally published in Foreign Affairs.]
Once again, Hamas has been spared from making the difficult political choice that face most resistance movements when they gain power: whether to focus on the fight or to govern. Since it won the Palestinian elections in 2006 and then took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has been free to pursue a middle course, resisting Israel while blaming its political failures on its cold war with Fatah and on Israel’s blockade. Now Hamas will tout the concessions it won from Israel last week — as part of the ceasefire, Israel agreed to open the border crossings to Gaza, suspend its military operations there, and end targeted killings — as proof that it should not give up fighting. Meanwhile, the outcome should be enough to buy Hamas cover for its poor record of governance and allow it to again defer making tough choices about statehood, negotiations, regional alliances, and military strategy. The group might even be able to use the momentum to supplant Fatah in the West Bank as it has done in Gaza.
Hamas’ recent advance won’t fully mask the organization’s central dilemma, nor will it cover internal rifts about how to solve it. In the American and Israeli media, portrayals of Hamas often focus heavily on the group’s commitment to eliminating the Jewish state. And certainly any fair study of the group should take into account that goal. Yet for Hamas, the end of Israel is more an ideological starting point than a practical program. And what comes after the starting point is unclear: Hamas has never developed a vision of what a resolution short of total victory might look like, nor has it spelled out an agenda for governing its own constituents, despite all these years in power. In part, that is because Hamas is a diffuse and contested movement, whose competing factions all work toward their own self-interest.
Hamas’ top political leadership used to operate out of Damascus but scattered to Cairo, Doha, and other Middle Eastern capitals this year as Syria descended into chaos. Since then, the exiled leadership has clashed publicly with Hamas’ Gaza-based leadership. Khaled Meshal, the organization’s main leader, now based Doha, and his cohort have generally allied with the Sunni Arab states over Iran, welcoming the rise of Islamists in Egypt, in Tunisia, and among the Syrian rebels. Meshal himself has publicly endorsed a truce with Israel based on Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders. The rest of the exile-based leaders have also indicated their willingness to consider a truce, although they say they would consider the deal temporary and would not recognize Israel. Party in response to Hamas’ pragmatism, and partly in acceptance of the reality of the movement’s rising power. Arab leaders finally ended their informal boycott of Gaza, and, in recent months, the emir of Qatar and the prime minister of Egypt paid visits.
Yet the growing stature of Hamas might accentuate, rather than diffuse, the tensions between its exiled chiefs and its Gaza-based leadership. According to Mark Perry, a historian who follows Palestinian politics, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has endorsed a close relationship with Iran. For his part, Haniya paid a warm visit to Tehran in February, provoking the ire of Arab leaders, who have since given him the cold shoulder, preferring instead to meet with other Hamas leaders. Haniya has expressed no interest in talking about a two state solution and overall, the rest of the Gaza-based leadership has simply grown more uncompromising under the Israeli blockade and now two lopsided wars. It prefers full-throated resistance to any political settlement.
It is unclear whether the differences presage an ideological split or are simply the result of two very different vantage points: inside Gaza, where the leaders have to worry about staying in power, and outside it, where the leaders worry about staying regionally relevant. So far, Hamas has seemed unable to address the issues that divide the two factions, which might explain why the movement has not selected a successor to Meshal, who was supposed to step down this spring. The sides do, of course, have lowest common denominators that hold them together: resistance as the primary avenue to winning Palestinian rights; gaining greater share of Palestinian leadership; and Islamism.
Since Hamas’ creation in 1987, it has tried to match Fatah’s strength. With that goal largely accomplished by 2007, it has moved on to pushing Fatah completely to the sidelines by maintaining a commitment to Islamism and opposition to the Jewish state. By contrast, Fatah has remained secular, and has even agreed to recognize Israel and to conduct an experiment in joint governance with it through the Palestinian Authority. Two decades into the Oslo process, Fatah has little to show for its efforts. Meanwhile, Hamas has not had to face Palestinian voters since 2006. Polling suggests that Palestinians — Gazans in particular — have lost patience with Hamas. But each conflict with Israel gives the movement a new lease on life.
As recently as last week, Israel was describing in breathless terms the latest tepid exploits of the smoky, aging leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, who is on the verge of obtaining non-member observer status at the United Nations. Israel’s foreign ministry was reportedly circulating policy options to deal with his gambit that included dismantling the Palestinian Authority and withholding its rightful tax revenues, which would effectively subject the West Bank to the same kind of isolation that Gaza has faced since Hamas took power. That would play directly to the long-term goals shared by Hamas’ leaders in Gaza as well as those in exile: to take over from Fatah the role of primary representative of all Palestinians.
What is more, developments in the region have boosted Hamas’ position. This is not the Middle East of the last war, in 2008-09, when, for the most part, the Arab world stood by as Israel subjected Gaza to overwhelming and disproportionate bombing. That conflict killed 1,387 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Hosni Mubarak’s government in Cairo even assisted the Israeli campaign against Hamas, while the West and Arab world poured money into Fatah’s West Bank government as a counterweight to Hamas. The regional landscape now is entirely different.
Still, despite a warm rhetorical embrace for Hamas, the Egyptian state has yet to significantly change its policy. It hasn’t opened the border with Gaza, nor does it want to do anything that would allow Israel to shift responsibility for Gaza to Egypt. Throughout the cease-fire negotiations, Israel said Egypt would be responsible for keeping the peace. But no matter what Israel says now, the language of the agreement and the reality on the ground make clear that Israel struck a deal with Hamas at Egypt’s insistence, and that Egypt will certainly be no guarantor of Hamas’ behavior. That’s an achievement for the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. As its (and Egypt’s) influence grows, it might be able to promote its preferred exiled Hamas leaders at the expense of the more uncompromising ones in Gaza.
Hamas has other competitors to worry about now. Until the uprisings two years ago, the Middle East’s Islamist movements were mostly on the outside looking in, railing against secular nationalist despots. In fact, Hamas and Hezbollah were the only Islamist movements who could claim to have ascended to power through popular victories at the ballot box. In the pre-uprising Arab world, then, Hamas (like Hezbollah) could plausibly claim some leadership of a regional Islamist movement. No more. The Muslim Brotherhood now governs Egypt. Islamists were elected to power in Tunisia. They have also emerged as power centers in Libya and among the Syrian opposition. Now that Islamists are competing for power in large states, Hamas (and Hezbollah) could shrink to their proper size in terms of influence. This outcome seems even more likely now that Hamas faces a vibrant challenge from jihadi fundamentalists within Gaza who consider Hamas far too moderate.
Hamas has presented itself as a voice for resistance, but as Gaza tries to rebuild and recover from this latest war, the organization will have to grapple with its own authoritarian, corrupt record in power. Its exiled leaders might sound more reasonable to Western ears, but they’re not the ones who actually control territory and manage a government. If it gets what it wants — a central role in Palestinian leadership — Hamas will have to reconcile its own internal factions or else risk a split. On the quickly changing ground of the new Arab politics, Hamas, like other governing movements, will have to articulate an ever-more detailed, constructive program, to convince rather than compel its constituents.