The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, is adopting a popular, non-violent resistance strategy in a move aimed at gaining international recognition and support. The group is under internal and external pressure to change tactics after being isolated by ongoing revolutions in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.
“We are in a big crisis. The Palestinian Authority used to get support from Arab countries, but they are too busy with their internal affairs,” Ahmed Youssef, a political adviser to Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader and former prime minister, told Egypt Independent in an interview in Cairo.
“We need to create popular resistance that draws the world to our struggle, and that doesn’t give the Israelis the justification to hit us hard. The non-violent approach is part of a strategy for our present situation to draw world sympathy to our cause.”
This “paradigm shift” is aimed at strengthening the group against the multiple pressures it faces, and the fact that it is also in a “vulnerable situation against the Israelis, who have a huge propaganda machine.”
Hamas officials, along with representatives of their rival Palestinian faction Fatah, have been meeting in Cairo this week to discuss the implementation of a reconciliation agreement that was signed here in May.
They discussed the possibility of reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized internationally as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, to include Islamist political parties such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Palestinian National Initiative led by Mustafa Barghouti.
Legislative and presidential elections are due to take place next year, under the terms of the reconciliation agreement, with the aim of creating a unity government. Part of the deal also includes the release of political prisoners held by Fatah and Hamas, whose relationship has in recent years been tense and violent.
“Elections will end the division between the West Bank and Gaza. We’re restructuring the Palestinian landscape now that [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal and [PLO chairman and Fatah leader] Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to form a power sharing system,” Youssef said.
He added that Hamas needs to engage with Arab governments and the West in “a power sharing system that will allow us to observe world politics, international law and gain legitimacy.”
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, and its main support base is in Gaza, which is under Israeli siege.
Hamas under pressure
The uprising in Syria and the ceaseless violence of the Assad regime have prompted speculation that Hamas will need to move the base of its political bureau away from Damascus. Qatar and Cairo have emerged as potential alternatives, though the latter seems an appealing option for Palestinians and Egyptians.
“It is difficult to function in Damascus, but they haven’t decided yet where to go and are not in a hurry. Egypt could be the best option,” Youssef said.
Mohamed Abdel Kadder, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agrees, pointing out that a Hamas move to Cairo could be mutually beneficial, particularly for securing Sinai, where there are tribal relationships with Gaza.
“Qatar would be a difficult base for Hamas, because it is a small country and more dependent on the US than vice versa. Egypt, on the other hand, is a big country and more powerful historically, culturally, militarily and politically, though not financially. Egypt and the US are also dependent on each other for strategic interests,” Abdel Kadder said.
“Hamas in Egypt would be slower and weaker than what it was in Syria, which prided itself on resisting Israeli and American interests. Egypt is different. It won’t challenge its military assistance from the US or the peace agreement with Israel for at least ten years,” he added.
The Iranian connection
Hamas still receives funding from the Iranian government, which is under harsh sanctions from the US and UK for its controversial nuclear program. The future of their relationship, however, is also under pressure and would come under more scrutiny should Hamas join the PLO and move its base to Cairo.
“The relationship between Hamas and Iran is shaken because of what is happening in Syria. Iran pressured Hamas to support the Syrian regime’s line, which they haven’t. This is unlike Hezbollah, which continues to support Assad. Hamas’s decision has outraged the Iranians,” said Khaled Hroub, a University of Cambridge academic and author of numerous books on Hamas.
Hroub added that if Arab countries, especially those in the wealthy Gulf states, support Hamas, it will be easier for the movement to shift its relationship away from Iran.
He believes Hamas’s decision to move towards non-violent resistance is extremely important, and paves the way for greater Gulf support.
Forming a power sharing government with Fatah would also relieve Hamas of the sole financial burden of Gaza’s economy and its 2.5 million inhabitants. Under a unity government the Palestinian Authority, which receives external financial support, would then be responsible for the West Bank and Gaza.
Egypt’s Islamists and Hamas
Analysts and political actors believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will not significantly change Egypt’s foreign policy, particularly toward Israel or the United States.
A spokesman for the Nour Party, the political arm of Egypt’s Salafi movement, Yousry Hammad told an Israeli radio station recently that the party is committed to the Camp David peace agreement with Israel.
Ashraf al-Sherif, an American University of Cairo professor who specializes in political movements, said that this fits with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis “won’t challenge the US and Egyptian army on foreign policy issues.”
Egypt’s policy towards Israel and Palestine is set by the intelligence services, which are facilitating this week’s talks between Hamas and Fatah, as it is seen as a security issue.
Hamas is the Gaza-based branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so ideologically the movements are connected. But that’s as far as it goes, Sherif explained.
“The Muslim Brotherhood provides ideological inspiration and influence. But, internationally, every branch has the freedom to conduct their own affairs, on the basis that they know what is in their best interests.”
Still, an Egyptian parliament dominated by Islamists, as election results indicate will be the case, might be beneficial to Islamist Palestinians. Egypt’s Islamists have historically been supportive of the Palestinian cause.
“The Mubarak regime wasn’t helping us. It was a puppet to the Americans and Israelis. We hope that now Egyptian support will produce tangible results on an official and popular level,” Youssef said.
A move towards non-violent resistance and unity with Fatah will help strengthen Hamas’s relationship with Egyptian Islamists. “If they became part of the PLO, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood would be in a better position to support them. This goes hand-in-hand with a new strategy focused on popular resistance. It’s a smart move from Hamas,” Hroub said.
Sherif says that “the Brotherhood can offer diplomatic and economic support, and Hamas will listen to them.”