Hamas: Dynamics and Evolution

The upheavals sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa since the end of 2010 have left their mark on the region. Although the Palestinian political scene appears to have weathered the storm, it has not remained unaffected. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group and ruler of the Gaza Strip, has been particularly touched by these regional changes. This article seeks to shed light on the internal dynamics and struggles faced by Hamas from the group’s inception to the current day.

Hamas and Fatah – the Crisis Begins

Hamas was established in 1987 as a resistance movement to liberate Palestine from Israeli rule. Its roots go back to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization, which had been active in the Gaza Strip since the 1950s.

Hamas played a role in the first (1987-1993) and second intifada (2000-2005), while maintaining a strong stance against the Oslo Peace Agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. For the first two decades of its existence, Hamas remained committed to a strategy of resistance. Its commitment to this approach was a central reason behind Israel’s departure from Gaza in 2005 and its defeat in the 2008-2009 bombardment of the Strip.

Hamas has, however, slowly transformed from a resistance movement to a political party beginning with the Palestinian legislative election of January 2006. Running as the “List of Change and Reform“, Hamas won a majority of seats, obtaining 42.9% of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats. The international community and Israel responded by boycotting and embargoing the Hamas-led government, and suspending all foreign aid to the Territories,

The elections also marked the beginning of rising tensions between Hamas and Fatah, the political party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the parliamentary elections, Fatah began a policy of abduction and assassination against Hamas officials. Hamas responded in kind. By December 15, 2006, President Abbas had called for a new round of parliamentary elections, a move that Hamas labeled as illegal.

Regional governments stepped in to resolve the crisis. This led to the 2007 Mecca Agreement between Hamas and Fatah to establish a united national government. The Agreement soon came unraveled leading to the events of June 2007, when Hamas forces launched a military offensive to prevent an attempted Fatah coup in the Gaza Strip. Although led by notorious Fatah strongman Mohammad Dahlan, the coup was planned and encouraged by the United States, Israel, and certain Arab governments.

As a result, the Palestinian territories became both politically and geographically divided, with the Gaza Strip under the authority of Hamas and the West Bank under the control of Fatah.

Hamas’ Internal Structure

Elections for Hamas’ political bureau and other political echelons of the movement usually occur every four years. The political bureau is the equivalent of the executive power in Hamas movement and is in charged with the daily implementation of the Majlis el Shura’s (Consultative or Consultation Council) strategy[1], which decides the political orientation of the organization. The political is elected by Hamas’ majlis el shoura. This latter’s ability to exercise power is nevertheless undermined by the geographical spread of Hamas leaderships and the relative political and financial autonomy of the external leadership which is in charge of collecting funds for the movement. The ability to control and distribute the funds collected gives to the external leadership a clear power in their hands.
Voting for the political bureau takes places only after elections for the majlis al shoura in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as among Hamas members in the Diaspora and those within Israeli prison.

Khaled Meshaal is considered the head of Hamas outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and represents the group at meetings with foreign governments and other parties throughout the world. He is not, however, the head of the group’s political bureau. As a security measure to prevent Israeli assassination attempts, the name of the president of the political bureau is kept secret. This secrecy has its origins in the Israeli assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi in April 17, 2004, three weeks after he succeeded as the movement’s president following the death of Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by the Israelis on March 22, 2004.

Today, Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip, led by Ismael Haniyeh, and the group’s external leadership, led by Meshaal, are the movement’s two most important constituencies. Due to suppression and repression by Israel and its collaborators within the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces, Hamas supporters in the West Bank have been marginalized. The same fate has come to the movement’s supporters inside Israeli prisons, as the number of detainees has decreased since 2011 when 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for Israeli hostage Sergeant Gilad Shalit.

Hamas: Internal Struggles?

The Hamas movement’s survival depends heavily on unity and cohesion. At the same time, the group’s various constituencies frequently think and act independently. Recent changes in the region have brought to the surface and exacerbated the internal issues and cracks within the movement’s two main constituencies.

There are, however, several important issues for which there is widespread agreement within the movement. Hamas’ relationship with the international community is one central source of agreement. Various members of the movement have repeatedly declared their desire to have Hamas receive recognition from the international community.

At a May 2011 ceremony in honor of the reconciliation agreement signed by Hamas and Fatah, Khaled Meshaal declared that Hamas wanted the “establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital.” Such a state would fall within the June 1967 lines, which the international community and the PA support as the basis for negotiations.

Hamas member and former advisor to Ismael Haniyeh, Dr Ahmed Youssef, has often reached out to the international community on the movement’s behalf. Through Youssef, the Gaza leadership has expressed its support for the idea of a Houdna (truce) with Israel lasting 20 years in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian State within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.[2]

In the same vein, the movement largely supports Hamas’ move away from resistance toward more political strategies. At times, Hamas leaders in Gaza have criticized Meshaal’s use of the term ‘popular resistance’[3], interpreting his words as a complete rejection of violence. While the group’s external leadership has denied this accusation, Hamas’ rejection of armed resistance remains undeniable.

In fact, the movement has virtually halted all forms of military resistance toward Israel and the occupation since its takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas has even worked to prevent military resistance from emerging within the Strip, arresting any groups attempting to launch rockets on Israel. During the last Israeli attack against Gaza in March 2012, it was Islamic Jihad, the left-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other small groups that launched rockets against Israel in response to the bombings. Hamas refrained from taking military action.

Hamas has also taken steps to curb peaceful protests inside Gaza, which are seen as a threat to the movement. For example, on March 30 2012, Hamas security services cracked down on a peaceful protest marking Land Day. Several people were injured and many others were arrested. In March of last year, Hamas security forces and thugs attacked activists and protesters from the March 15th youth movement, who were demanding an end to divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas later accused the movement of destabilizing the Gaza Strip and receiving foreign funding, in other to undermine the group’s work.

The real struggle and source of conflict within Hamas revolves around internal decision-making processes. These disagreements began with the signing of the May 2011 Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation Agreement, and peaked in February 2012 with the signing of the new reconciliation agreement in Doha by Meshaal and President Abbas.

Although based on the May 2011 agreement, the Doha Agreement calls for a second meeting of the temporary committee of the PLO to reform its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council, as well as the initiation of work by the Central Elections Committee (CEC) in preparation for legislative and presidential elections, and the formation of a government of independent technocrats, led by Abbas. Under the Agreement, Abbas would become PA prime minister, in addition to serving as PA president, chairman of the PLO, and leader of Fatah.

The Gaza leadership has voiced its opposition to various parts of the Doha Agreement. The negotiations took place in the form of personalized talks between Abbas and Meshaal. This was particularly irksome for the Hamas officials in Gaza, who wanted their interests taken into account. Following the group’s routine patterns for internal conflict, prominent leaders in Gaza expressed reservations and raised certain demands as the external leadership pursued reconciliation with Fatah.

Following a meeting between Hamas officials in Cairo on February 22, 2012, the Gaza leadership made additional demands with regard to the Doha Agreement. While officially declaring its willingness to implement the Agreement, the Gaza leadership remained unwilling to cede power in the Strip. It asked to retain control over the interior ministry, which oversees the Hamas security services and maintain its structure, and requested the naming of a Gaza-based deputy for Abbas. The Gaza leadership also demanded that Abbas’ appointment as prime minister be conditioned on a vote of confidence from the Palestinian parliament. Notably, the leadership did not take issue with Mahmoud Abbas’ double-status as Prime Minister and President of the PA, which is unconstitutional under Palestinian Law.

In early July 2012, in a new sign of Gazan hostility toward the reconciliation agreement, the Hamas leadership in the Strip suspended the CEC’s work the day before it was to begin registering voters. The move put a hold on any progress toward unity.

Hamas: Control and Resilience in the Gaza Strip

The Israeli government’s illegal siege on the Gaza Strip has had catastrophic human, social, and economic consequences. This small tract of land has been isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, tts roughly 1.6 million inhabitants have been deprived of the most basic commodities, including food, medicine, fuel, and desperately-needed building materials.

While the initial objective of the illegal siege was to weaken Hamas, it has actually empowered the movement. In fact, the group’s Gaza leadership has considerably increased its power in the past few years because of the power it wields in the Strip.

Hamas dominates the Gaza strip politically, socially, and economically. The powerful and well-armed Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, has become a security service agency that ensures Hamas’ control over the territory and helps the movement extend its power to nearly all sectors of society.

Currently exceeding 1200 in number, tunnels between Gaza and Egypt have been used to resist the illegal siege and provide the population with a variety of vital products. The tunnel economy has also been a source of domestic revenue for Hamas, helping to further its political and socio-economic power. In addition to the financial assistance provided by its allies, Hamas has imposed taxes on goods entering Gaza through the tunnels, raising enormous amounts of money.

Hamas and the ‘Arab Spring’

The Gaza leadership has also benefited from the so-called Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt.  Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, were great PA supporters, Hamas detractors, and enablers of the Gaza Strip siege. The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s legislative and presidential elections and the opening of the Gaza-Sinai crossing at Rafah were all good news for the Gaza leadership.

In late 2011 and early 2012, Ismail Haniyeh left Gaza for the first time since 2007 and embarked on two regional tours that included stops in Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, Tunisia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran.

Following Mubarak’s overthrow, the tunnel business exploded, creating an “economic boom” for the Strip. According to a September 2011 World Bank report, GDP growth within the Gaza Strip reached 28% in the first six months of 2011. This financial boon has primarily benefited Hamas, while the Palestinians of Gaza remain dependent on foreign aid.

Not all aspects of the Arab Spring have, however, been good to Hamas. The Syrian uprising has been a particular thorn in the movement’s side.  For more than a decade, Hamas’ political bureau was based in Syria. Hamas would like to maintain its relationship with the Syrian regime, which has supported and welcomed the group when almost all other Arab regimes closed their doors. Hamas also does not want to lose the support of Iran, its largest supporter and supplier of money, weapons, and training.

While some senior Hamas officials have loudly voiced their support for the Syrian revolution. Hamas has officially taken a neutral position. The movement has supported the rights of the Syrian people while neither condemning nor directly opposing the Syrian regime. The group has even attempted to mediate the crisis on several occasions, and has encouraged Syrian President Bashar al Assad to undertake immediate reforms.

Popular support for the Syrian revolution among Palestinians in the OPT and diaspora has stopped the Hamas leadership from voicing clear support for a ‘political solution’ to the conflict, as has been done by Hezbollah and requested by the Syrian regime.

Because of the ongoing conflict, the Hamas leadership in Damascus did leave the country and is now scattered between several locations, including Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar.[4] Hamas ties with Syria and Iran have not, however, been broken.

Senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, visited Iran in March 2012 followed by a visit from Hamas foreign minister, Mohammed Awad. Visits by Hamas officials to Iran suggest that both sides have reaffirmed their strong times and overcome any differences they may have over Syria.

Hamas: Radical Changes?

Along with its withdrawal from Syria, Hamas’ current rapprochement with the Gulf states has been viewed as a further step toward political moderation. The Islamic movement has long had a long record of relatively warm relations with the Gulf countries. This relationship has entered a new period of consolidation and closer rapprochement linked to the revolutionary processes in Egypt and Tunisia and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood desires recognition from the international community, especially the United States. It views Western imperialist governments as potential partners in consolidating its power. This creates a new situation in the region that presents Hamas with a novel set of political options.

The group is banking on improved relations with the Brotherhood-controlled Egypt, which would potentially bring the movement more international support. As such, there are risks that Hamas may put the demands of the international community over those of the Palestinian people, and follow Fatah’s path.

Conclusion

At the moment, Hamas is adjusting to new regional realities and recalibrating its internal political structure. Any changes within the group are not likely to be radical. The movement does, nevertheless, face a number of challenges. Its main challenge comes from the shift away from resistance for the sake of political power. In order to survive, Hamas must rethink its priorities before it suffers the same fate as Fatah. This can only be achieved by listening to and empowering the Palestinian people. The group must reconnect the Palestinian national movement with the ongoing popular protests in the Arab world to reinforce the Palestinian struggle against Israeli and Western imperialism. Without taking these measures, the future of Hamas and the Palestinian cause face substantial risks.


[1] (Meshaal, 2002, Yassin, 1998, Al Rantissi 2002,)

[2] The idea as is similar to the two-state solution, despite the difference in wording.

[3] Hamas agreed on popular resistance in the 2006 National Conciliation document, which article three of the document upholds “the right of the Palestinian people to resist and to uphold the option of resistance of occupation by various means and focusing resistance in territories occupied in 1967 in tandem with political action, negotiations and diplomacy whereby there is broad participation from all sectors in the popular resistance”. “National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners[Wathiqat al-Asra]”, Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, 28 June 2006.

[4] Khaled Meshaal has moved to Qatar.

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