Hamas at a Crossroads

A decade since the takeover of the Gaza Strip, Hamas finds itself at a crossroads – whether to opt for a compromise with the PA or to strengthen relations with the Shiite world. And what about another confrontation with Israel? Special analysis of the geopolitical situation in the Gaza Strip

Hamas militants from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades (Photo: AP)

Three decades after Hamas was established (1987) and on the tenth anniversary of its takeover of the Gaza Strip, the organization faces one of the most difficult times in its history. The Hamas movement, the Palestinian extension of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, succeeded, within three decades, in evolving into a significant alternative to the traditional PLO leadership, challenged the Oslo agreements, led the al-Aqsa Intifada, won the elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006 and eventually took control over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007.

The movement's takeover of the Gaza Strip was one of the highlights of its evolution, and provided it with an opportunity to establish a Palestinian state of sorts, in line with its religious and ideological doctrine. Hamas chose to invest the resources available to it in the development of its military capabilities and in pursuing the armed struggle against Israel in preference to the development of infrastructures and caring for the welfare of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, the movement engaged in three primary military confrontations against the IDF: Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge. These confrontations provided no achievements for Hamas and severely undermined the economy of the Gaza Strip.

A few months ago, Khaled Mashal, the departing Chief of Hamas' Political Bureau, presented the new Hamas charter in Doha, Qatar. The new document was not intended to replace the original Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, but rather to improve the organization's image and legitimacy. So far, it seems that the initiative has failed in providing Hamas with legitimacy.

In the last few months, a leadership reshuffle has taken place within Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh replaced Khaled Mashal as Chief of the Political Bureau while Haniyeh, who had served as Prime Minister on behalf of Hamas in the Gaza Strip was replaced by Yahya Sinwar, regarded as one of the more extremist Hamas leaders, who, along with Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas' military arm, rule the Gaza Strip.

Domestic & Foreign Challenges

The Hamas movement is required to deal with a number of primary challenges that threaten its domination of the Gaza Strip. The movement is currently engaged in a fierce confrontation with the Palestinian Authority which attempts to regain control over the Gaza Strip. In the context of this confrontation, the Palestinian Authority stopped the transfer of funds for electrical power and wages with the intention of exerting pressure on Hamas.

Israel imposes an on-going closure on the Gaza Strip, on land and at sea, to prevent the transfer of resources that serve the military objectives of Hamas. In effect, the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip depend on Israel for the supply of electrical power, water, fuel and all the other necessities required in order to maintain the normal life of the local population. Pursuant to the demand of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has recently restricted the supply of electrical power to the Gaza Strip.

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regards Hamas as a terrorist organization. The Egyptian security forces managed to neutralize the primary elements of the tunnel system between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, thereby cutting off a vital economic source and a significant channel used for the transfer of warlike stores to the movement.

Qatar, one of the chief supporters of the Hamas movement, is currently under heavy pressure exerted by Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which demand that Qatar suspend its support for terrorist organizations, including Hamas.

Moreover, the present leadership of the movement refuses, for the time being, to change their priorities and continues to allocate a major share of the movements' limited resources to ongoing military buildup at the expense of the increasingly worsening plight of the population of the Gaza Strip. Displays of criticism and demonstrations by inhabitants of the Gaza Strip have been brutally suppressed by Hamas. In order to relieve the pressure, Hamas attempts to channel the rage and frustration of the local inhabitants toward the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and allows demonstrations to take place near the fence at the border with Israel. As a result of all of these processes, the Hamas movement is currently more isolated than ever before. Its economic resources have sustained a serious blow and the state of the population in the Gaza Strip is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.

The Options

The leaders of the Hamas movement face several courses of action they may opt for in an attempt to resolve the crisis they currently experience after a decade of ruling some two million inhabitants.

A Palestinian national reconciliation – direct or indirect talks with Abu Mazen in an attempt to settle the current crisis. In order for this process to succeed, the leadership of the Hamas movement will be called upon to make some concessions that would provide the PA with a degree of renewed influence in the Gaza Strip. A Palestinian national reconciliation can improve the legitimacy of Hamas and resolve – albeit partially – the economic and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Going over to the Sunni faction led by Saudi Arabia – in this case, Hamas will be required to comply with the Egyptian and Saudi demands, including the severing of their relations with Iran and Qatar, renouncing their association with the Muslim Brotherhood movement and extraditing wanted individuals to Egypt. In exchange, Hamas will benefit from economic aid and an improvement in their international status.

Tightening the cooperation with the Shi'ite axis led by Iran – this option maintains the status quo to a considerable extent. In this case, Hamas will become more dependent on Iran for financial and military support and in exchange, it would be required to conform to Iran's aggressive policy against Israel and the Sunni faction. Opting for this course of action will worsen Hamas' isolation and lack of legitimacy among Sunni Arab countries as well as in western eyes.

A war against Israel – this option is the most risky gamble for the Hamas leadership, so it may be assumed that they would only opt for it if they came to the conclusion that their domination of the Gaza Strip is in danger in view of the worsening economic and social crisis and pursuant to an evaluation according to which only an extreme move can extricate the movement from the crisis it currently faces.

According to the movement's estimate, a confrontation with Israel could enhance Palestinian solidarity with the movement that would claim that it is the only element that continues to lead the Palestinian struggle opposite the Israeli "occupation". This will lead to support for Hamas from Turkey, Qatar and wide circles within the Muslim world, as well as from pro-Palestinian organizations worldwide.

The Gaza Strip has not yet recovered from the devastating results of the previous confrontation (Operation Protective Edge), and a renewed confrontation with Israel will lead to additional severe damage that would only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip within the immediate term of the actual fighting as well as in the long run.

Apparently, this outcome contradicts the logic according to which Hamas operates, but we can also point to an alternative rationale, according to which only an extreme humanitarian crisis can lead to international intervention which, in Hamas' view, would establish a new reality that may serve the objectives of the Hamas movement.

A Waiting Period

In a simulation conducted at the 17th Herzliya Conference in June 2017, which dealt with the issue of "Israel in a multi-front escalation" and focused on the Palestinian front, one of the possible scenarios predicted that Hamas might concentrate its efforts in an attempted takeover of the territories currently dominated by the Palestinian Authority in the Judea and Samaria. Admittedly, the simulated scenario was different from today's reality as it dealt with a situation where Abu Mazen steps down from the political stage and a struggle for his inheritance develops, but this possibility should not be ruled out even in the context of the present circumstances.

Evidently, the Hamas movement is currently dealing with one of the most severe crises since its inception and it is required to make a choice between multiple options, each one of which is difficult as far as Hamas is concerned. In view of the complex reality of the Middle East and the regional power struggles, Hamas' maneuverability has been significantly restricted while Israel currently enjoys a solid geostrategic position and unprecedented relations with the Arab world. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to predict which course of action Hamas will opt for, and all that remains to be done is wait and see. 

 

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