By Nathan Thrall, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nathan Thrall is a Jerusalem-based analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group covering Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. The views expressed are his own.
Hamas never has faced such major challenges and opportunities as those presented by the Arab uprisings. It abandoned its headquarters in Damascus – at much cost to ties with its largest state supporter, Iran – while improving relations with such U.S. allies as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. Asked to pick sides in an escalating regional contest, it has sought to choose neither. Internal tensions are at new heights, centering on how to respond to regional changes in the short run. Leaders in the West Bank and in exile tend to believe that with the rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the West’s rapprochement with Islamists, it is time for bolder steps toward Palestinian unity. This could facilitate Hamas’s regional and wider international integration. The Gaza leadership, by contrast, is wary of large strategic steps amid a still uncertain regional future.
The Arab uprisings could hardly have caused a more stark reversal of Hamas’s fortunes. In the stagnant years preceding them, the Islamist movement was isolated diplomatically, caged in economically by Egypt and Israel, crushed by Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, and warily managing an unstable ceasefire with a far more powerful adversary. Incapable of fulfilling popular demands for reconciliation with Fatah, it was caught in the contradictions of being an Islamist movement constricted by secular governance and a resistance movement actively opposing Gaza-based attacks against Israel.
Facing reduced popularity since the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections that brought it to power, Hamas was criticized from without and within. It suffered defections by a small but important constituency of militants who left to join groups more committed to upholding Islamic law and attacking Israel. The movement could take comfort in little other than that Fatah was doing no better.
The Arab revolts seemed to change all that. For Hamas, positive developments came in the toppling of Fatah’s strong Arab ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the rise in Egypt of Hamas’s closest supporter and mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Restrictions at the Gaza-Sinai crossing at Rafah, whose control the former Egyptian regime used to pressure, constrict and impoverish what it perceived to be Gaza’s illegitimate rulers, were eased. Islamist parties in other countries were empowered, while instability grew in states with large Islamist oppositions. The region seemed filled with the promise of a new, more democratic regional order reflecting widespread aversion to Israel and its allies and popular affinity with Hamas. As Hamas saw it, these and other events promised to advance each of its primary goals: governing Gaza; weakening Fatah’s grip on the West Bank; spreading Islamic values; ending its diplomatic isolation; and strengthening regional alliances in opposition to Israel.
Yet, regional changes also came at a cost. Above all, the uprising in Syria, where the Hamas political bureau was based for more than a decade, posed a great challenge to the movement, tearing it between competing demands. On the one hand, gratitude to a regime that offered support when nearly all other Arab countries had shunned it; the cost of breaking relations with a regime still clinging to power; and the risks of alienating Iran, its largest supporter and supplier of money, weapons and training. On the other, Hamas’s connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Sunni Arabs more generally, as well as its indebtedness to the Syrian people. Hovering over these were its obligations to Syria’s hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who could pay with their homes and lives for the decisions made by some of their political leaders.
The choices in regional alliances that Hamas will make remain unclear, in no small part because of the unprecedentedly patent and deep divisions that have come about following the first of the Arab uprisings. While divisions in the movement are nothing new and predate the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, today’s disagreements relate to how best to profit from the regional upheaval and what to sacrifice in doing so. For the moment, unity within the movement has prevailed – but only by putting both tactical and strategic choices on hold and falling back on the default position of inaction.
The question before the international community, and particularly the U.S. and Europe, is whether they have learned the lessons of the past six years well enough. They made the mistake of believing that they could undo the 2006 legislative elections, leading to the division of the West Bank from Gaza the following year, after which they compounded their error by imagining that the division of the occupied territories provided an opportunity for Ramallah to make peace with Israel and for the international community to force Hamas, in a besieged and stagnant Gaza, to cede power. Today there is broad recognition that both pillars of this policy – peacemaking and the weakening of Hamas – were illusory. Yet no alternative has emerged. The quite dramatic change in U.S. and EU policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood might offer an opportunity.
With both the region and Hamas at a strategic crossroads, the minimum the U.S. and EU should do in exchange for commitments by the Islamist movement – like a genuine ceasefire in Gaza, contributing to stabilizing Sinai, giving Abbas a mandate to negotiate with Israel and agreeing to abide by the results of a popular referendum – is to make clear they will deal with a unity government whose platform and actions are in harmony with these principles.