Hamas at a crossroads
September 24th, 2012
05:58 PM ET

Hamas at a crossroads

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.

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Topics: Middle East

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soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. deniz boro

    Which Hamas? Or lets say whose Hamas?

    September 24, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  2. Thinker23

    Do you know more than one Hamas, Deniz? Can you enlighten us about them?

    September 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  3. AmeriPali

    It's unfortunate that nothing will be done by anybody in the near furure though I hope I am wrong. All major actors in the Middle East are too preoccuoied with the uprisings and Iran to worry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US is in elecion mode and after that they are all about domestic and international economic issues. Let's hope the Palestinians can manage the situation until there is a new dynamic in the Middle East/World. Considering what is happening in the West Bank–the water it boiling over. I hope Obama and the Quartet can figure out a way to move the process forward even if it is a little. Hope can go a long way. Press Israel to open up the Palestinian markets through Jordan and Egypt to open up in Gaza. This can be done without too much direct Israeli-Palestinian contact. And in the end it woud help the World Economy. This could also give much needed HOPE to the millions of nearly hopeless Palestinians.

    September 24, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  4. Kelvin

    Fareed, you should have done the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad interview. Piers Morgan does not have the intelligence to ask the important questions. CNN you blew it.

    September 25, 2012 at 1:03 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Above all Hamas has to be serious and work on the reconciliation pact it had signed with Fatah in Cairo in May 2011 and prove the critics that it would work in practice. Indeed the corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority dominated by its secularist rival, Fatah needs to do its share of homework to improve the relationship too. Both camps have to think of the future of their people, instead of myopic political gains of their own organisations.

    September 25, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
    • Martin Jacobs

      Mr j. von hettlingen
      Your statement is well put, the statement about which Hamas is absolutely true, Hamas leaders are infighting a great deal right now, it main leader is about to retire, the one with the most and powerful respected influence, mind you a terrorist, which might have turned political correct in some small with the world changing today.

      So its best known leader walked out, even the Brotherhood in Eygpt coming to power found out the hard way, terrrorist are not people, they are an agenda with a killing to make at anyone deaths. Not to worry, the English is correct in the last statement.

      September 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  6. justiceforall

    This is an artical that says nothing

    September 26, 2012 at 1:43 am | Reply
  7. ziggystardust

    what does it matter? palestinians have had ample opportunities for peace deals. all rejected. leave gaza=missile attacks. nothing short of destruction of israel will satisfy them. it should also be pointed out that there is already a palestinian state. it is called jordan, the other part of palestine given to them when israel was created. also, with all the wealth in mideast arab nations, why are palestinians there kept in poverty stricken camps instead of some form of integration like jews taken into israel after expulsion from arab nations?

    September 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  8. Pnm9pnm

    Let's hope thay try to get along .pnm.

    September 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  9. what/the/f

    more death in syria and no action by Hamas
    more blood spilled then Palestine and Israelis, put together 40 year conflict
    the longest running occupation is that of
    native Morocco west coast Beduins 50 year occupation by moved and interment camp located inland dessert
    boo Syria. boo Syria. ( go free syria army ) Arabs all talk your talk of protecting and standing for arabs is that talk
    Palestinians used by everyones, agenda derailed by different arab interests by arabs

    September 27, 2012 at 5:26 am | Reply
  10. Benedict

    Get new friends and ditch old patrons?! Hamas sure have their work cut out for them. They have look whether the alliances that they had made and the ones their about to make will not cause more harm the Palestinian people's hopes for an independent nation!!.

    September 27, 2012 at 7:47 am | Reply
    • Muhammad

      Hamas has to decide whether they are going to be terrorists for the long run; or whether they love their children and, consequently, should join the civilized world by working, going to school and bettering their lot in life through legal activities.

      September 28, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  11. yacine

    The israeli Jesus Christ would be killed by zionist and the evangilist "christians" would have applaused to that claming that Israel has the right to defend itself. Oh! I forgot that these people has already tried to kill Jesus christ with the help of the most powerful empire at the time, the Roman.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  12. Nostromo45

    I can only ask when these Arabs and terrorists like Hamas, might just stop being so damned stupid. They could start by making peace among themselves first. But I do not see that coming in any Arab or Taliban-dominated territory any time soon.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  13. fuscator

    "...make clear they will deal with a unity government whose platform and actions are in harmony with these principles".
    Hogwash – Hamas and Fath have tried numerous times to agree on going it together. Cannot happen because Hamas refuses to abandon its explicit agenda of Israel destruction, and any sham unity achieved under these conditions will not fly with the USA, and not even with the suicidally naive Europe.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  14. Aladdin Sane

    Israel isn't interested in peace. It wants the Palestinians to live on their knees while they expand their occupation and pursue their racist policies. The answer is resistance in all its forms and a world wide boycott of Israel as against apartheid South Africa.

    November 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
    • Shai

      Hi Aladdin
      I'm Israeli and I am very interested in peace. I would also like the Palestinians to win their independence, and as far as I'm concerned – I would give half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians if it would bring complete peace! I know that probably much Israelis don't share my views, but still I assure you I'm not the only one.
      I hope both Palestinians and Israelis will sleep peacefully tonight.

      November 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply

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