Hamas’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. The de facto government of the Gaza strip suddenly finds itself in difficulties on four fronts: deteriorating external relations, including financial support; internal pressure from Islamic State (IS) supporters; disputes within the Hamas organization; and a new confrontation with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
For decades Sunni Hamas, dedicated as it is to Israel’s destruction, had been financially supported by Iran, whose hatred of Israel out-trumps its passionately held Shiite Islamic convictions. But when Hamas refused to join the fight against IS in support of Iran’s lackey, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, funding dwindled. Future substantive Iranian assistance to Hamas is problematic, given improving relations between Iran and the US following the nuclear deal, though tactical military aid will probably continue.
Unfortunately, from Hamas’s point of view, as financial support from Iran ebbed, Egypt’s president Abdulfattah Al-Sisi embarked on a determined program of closing down the tunnels from Gaza into Egypt, thus effectively cutting the organization off from supplies and financial resources vital for its continued operations. Hamas was forced to try mending fences with Egypt. It did so by approaching Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival. The move was not unsuccessful. Saudi Arabia applied some gentle pressure, and Egyptian officials met with Hamas leaders in Qatar early in June. Some sort of deal was struck. In exchange for Egypt agreeing to some limited opening of official crossings, Hamas undertook to refrain from using tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt.
However this, and any other understanding between Hamas and Egypt, is fragile in the extreme while the slightest suspicion remains that Hamas’s military arm, the Al-Qassam Brigades, is cooperating with the IS-linked Province of Sinai in conducting terror attacks against Al-Sisi’s government. The evidence for this, though, is strong, despite emphatic denials by Hamas political spokesmen, and the charge is reiterated not only by Israel, but in a recent statement by Palestinian Authority (PA) foreign minister Riyadh Al-Maliki, and by Egyptian military sources.
In fact, Hamas’s involvement in the Sinai Peninsula illustrates a deep internal split within the upper echelons of the organization. For while collaboration with the Province of Sinai is supported by the military arm, it is opposed by the political arm, under the leadership of self-exiled Hamas head Khaled Meshal.
Something of the internal structure and workings of the Hamas organization is public knowledge. For example it is well known that Hamas has a Shura Council that decides on general policies, and approves plans and budgets. Its membership, which ranges from 50 to 70, is made up of officials from Gaza and the West Bank, the leadership abroad and detainees in Israeli prisons.
There is, however, also a more elitist inner Shura Council, the final decision-maker in Hamas. Its specific membership is unknown, but it elects the political bureau, Hamas’s highest body. At a slightly lower level than the political bureau, and unelected, is the Al-Qassam Brigades’ military council, a body shrouded in intense secrecy – one good reason being that all its members are wanted by Israel. More to the point, politically, is that some of them – charismatic military figures like Mohammed Al-Deif, Marwan Issa, Yahya Sinwar and Rouhi Moushtaha – are also members of the top political bureau, and in recent years they have been increasingly influencing Hamas’s overall orientation.
The inevitable outcome is division within Hamas’s top leadership. Meshal, the head of Hamas’s political wing, often clashes with leaders of the Qassam Brigades. Thus at the same time as the military wing is terrorising the population of the Sinai peninsula and striking at Egyptian forces, Hamas’s political arm is working to improve relations with Egypt’s government. It has also, if leaks and rumours are to be taken seriously, quietly engaged in contact with Israel about a possible long-term truce, a policy assuredly anathema to Hamas’s military wing.
Iran has seized on the divisions within Hamas to further its own political objectives. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have reportedly been funding the military wing because, according to distinguished UK columnist Con Coughlin, “it gives them access to Israel’s southern border, in addition to the northern border with Lebanon, where Iran funds Hezbollah militants.”
If the Hamas leadership shudders at the thought of increased Shiite influence within Gaza, it views with greater alarm the prospect of an IS takeover, Sunni though it be. In recent months, a radical jihadist-Salafi group allied to IS, calling itself the Omar Hadid Brigade, has attempted to challenge Hamas’s rule in the Strip. “We will uproot you,” was the message to Hamas in a recent IS video. “The rule of sharia will be implemented in Gaza in spite of you.” In short, Hamas is not extreme enough for IS.
The Brigade is responsible for launching indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel in an attempt, analysts believe, to initiate a new conflict with Israel that will further weaken Hamas and enable IS to fill the resulting power vacuum. Hamas has reacted by arresting members of the group and trying to ensure that the precarious truce with Israel is not breached.
But precarious it remains. When a Palestinian rocket exploded in southern Israel on August 7, the Israeli Air Force attacked a Hamas target in central Gaza. “Hamas is the party responsible for what takes place in the Gaza Strip,” ran the Israeli statement, following the retaliation.
To add to Hamas’s burdens, the perennial conflict with its rival Fatah, which controls the PA and rules in the West Bank, has flared up again. Hamas has consistently sought to undermine the government of PA president Mahmoud Abbas – whose leadership it declares illegitimate – and to overthrow and replace it. In early July authorities in the West Bank arrested over 100 members of Hamas in a mass security crackdown.
All attempts to reconcile the two wings of the Palestinian body politic, and there have been many over the years, have failed. The most recent – Abbas’s so-called government of national unity – lasted barely a year. The plain fact of the matter is that Hamas is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, and it is a struggle that they are by no means assured of winning.
Viewing Hamas’s current position overall, what comes to mind are the apocalyptic words of poet W B Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.