In asymmetric warfare, you’re only as strong as your patrons and friends are. So when the enemies of your enemy have inadvertently put you in a bind — and the political landscape of your region has drastically changed — you have to learn to adapt to survive. In the past year, Hamas has shown a willingness to make a couple of key policy reversals in order to preempt this change. In May of last year they renounced violence, and for the most part have limited the amount of rockets flying into southern Israel. This past October they freed Gilad Shalit in a long-awaited prisoner swap. In December they called for reconciliation with Fatah, and just a couple days ago they met in Qatar and signed a unification pact. Yet for all of these seemingly drastic overtures, Hamas has only begun the stages of transformation it must undertake in order to stay relevant.
Hamas’ two major patrons, Iran and Syria, have both made matters difficult for the ruling de facto government of Gaza. In the wake of the civil unrest and mass killings in Syria, Hamas has moved its senior operatives out of Damascus, once its headquarters for 13 years. The group used to have upwards of a thousand operatives reportedly in Syria, but this past weekend the last of the senior officials left the Damascus bureau. The conflict in Syria had put them in a tough position: whereas normally Hamas had been generally supportive of the Arab Spring, the long-standing relationship with the Assad regime forced them to make a decision between popularity and logistical support/patronage. As Hamas chose the former, the relationship between their leadership and the Assad regime deteriorated, angering the Iranians. It was widely rumored that Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas, had remained in Damascus only under intense Iranian pressure. Yet Hamas’ withering support of an ally and patron in Syria was not the only thing contributing to a faltering relationship with Iran; in Gaza, a new challenge arose for the Islamist organization.
Hamas’ non-violent and reconciliation-oriented overtures have created gaps for others to fill in the Gaza Strip, most notably the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Thanks to a new and emerging patron in Tehran, the PIJ has reportedly amassed an arsenal of rockets and small arms and have taken it upon themselves to shoulder the mantle of violent resistance towards Israel, causing an internal power struggle with Hamas. The PIJ’s relationship with Iran has become so close that it is rumored PIJ members are converting to Shiism. Conflicts between Hamas and the PIJ have risen in the past few months, as Hamas strives to maintain the status quo and consolidate its power. Perhaps fearful that the rise of the PIJ signals a change in popular opinion, Hamas has renewed their previous vigor for a reconciliation deal with Fatah, a deal that has polled as very popular with the Palestinian people.
In the spectrum of violent extremist groups to legitimate political entities, Hamas appears to be moving towards the latter. Relations with Jordan have thawed in recent months, due in large part to the recent non-violent professions of the group. Many have speculated that if not Gaza, then Amman could become the next headquarters for the organization. Other possible locales for the future headquarters are Sudan, Egypt and Qatar, yet each of these country choices poses different repercussions for Hamas. If they choose to reside in Jordan or Egypt, they will have to operate within the confines of two foreign polices with peace agreements with Israel, thereby tacitly recognizing the existence of Israel. If they choose Sudan, they send a visceral message that harkens back to the days following the June War of 1967 and the “Three No’s of Khartoum.” If this reconciliation deal is to succeed after all, the next location of Hamas’ headquarters could be in Amman, or further yet, as part of a power-sharing deal in Ramallah.
Still, it remains to be seen what will come of this new reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Quick to admonish the accord in Doha, Israel’s Netenyahu has made it clear he will not come to the negotiating table unless Hamas recognizes Israel’s existence and renounces violence. While Hamas has met one of those stipulations, the rhetoric of this weekend’s meetings seems to appear anything but conciliatory.
Meshal was quoted as being “happy with this agreement, in order to face the enemy [read: Israel] in unity.” For now, the reconciliation and subsequent remarks from Israel appear to be another well-read lesson in an Israeli/Palestinian version of physics, for what happens when unstoppable forces meet immovable objects is so often a resolute and stubborn logjam.
The next couple of months will be crucial for the transformation of Hamas, as both parties now prepare for general elections under the banner of unity. The success of this reconciliation deal, the success of non-violence in the Palestinian Territories, and the ultimate success of any peace deal in the next couple of years hinges upon the decisions made by Hamas in the coming months.
Grant Rumley is a Consultant in the Washington DC area, you can reach him on Twitter at @grant_rumley
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East