From an ANALYSIS OF NEAR EASTPOLICY FROM THE SCHOLARS AND ASSOCIATES OF THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE, PolicyWatch 2111, July 30, 2013, by Ehud Yaari*:
A serial loss of regional allies, serious financial difficulties, internal
squabbling, and inability to build up its military capabilities have all
weakened Hamas, leaving it vulnerable to potential unrest in Gaza.
As Hamas voices raise predictable objections to the just-announced resumption
of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the group is in the throes of one of its most
testing crises ever. Over the past year, all of its major pillars of support
have eroded to one degree or another, while internally, the movement is split
by acute policy differences. Concerned that their grip on power in Gaza may be
at risk in the foreseeable future, many in the group's top echelon are pushing
for immediate measures to mobilize local public opinion as a means of
confronting potential challenges, and to repair fraying relations with Iran and
REVERSAL IN EGYPT
The latest and most painful loss for Hamas came next door in Egypt, where
President Muhammad Morsi was ousted and the group's parent movement, the Muslim
Brotherhood, was defeated in the struggle for power. Hamas viewed the
Brotherhood's rise in Egypt as a great asset, enjoying close relations with its
leaders in Cairo and forging a de facto alliance with the group.
For example, top Brotherhood figure Khairat al-Shater -- a millionaire now
imprisoned by the military -- made significant financial donations to the Gaza
government, while Morsi allowed Hamas to open offices in Cairo and permitted
several of its leaders (e.g., Mousa Abu Marzouk) to establish residency there.
Egypt also opened its Rafah border terminal in a much more generous manner than
ever before. More broadly, Hamas saw the Brotherhood-led Egypt as a guarantor
of its hold on Gaza, a deterrent against Israel, an ally against the
Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and a potential new sponsor in its bid
to join the regional rise of political Islam.
Egypt's June 30 revolution brought a quick reversal, however. The new
authorities in Cairo now treat Hamas as a hostile adversary, accusing it of
undermining Egypt's stability and fomenting rapid security deterioration in the
Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian military has practically sealed the border with
Gaza, limiting the Rafah crossing to intermittent, minimal capacity and
effectively closing the hundreds of smuggling tunnels through which Hamas
acquired many of Gaza's necessary goods (e.g., cars, cement, fuel). And for the
first time since Hamas took control of the strip, Egyptian helicopters are
gathering intelligence over Gaza's southern sector after receiving a quiet nod
Meanwhile, the Egyptian media has adopted a fiery anti-Hamas tone, even
spreading stories about the group collaborating with the Brotherhood to attack
soldiers in the Sinai. For its part, Hamas claims that PA president Mahmoud
Abbas ordered his intelligence officials to smear the group by providing Egypt
with false documents. To prove its case, Hamas presented purportedly
intercepted memos from the PA's Preventive Security service. Such tensions may
grow if Morsi is belatedly indicted for arranging the 2011 Wadi Natrun prison
break, in which armed Hamas operatives allegedly raided the facility and helped
him and other detainees escape, killing several Egyptian security personnel in
OTHER REGIONAL RIFTS
The loss of Egypt followed other important setbacks for the group, largely
caused by the position it has taken on Syria's civil war. By siding with the
uprising against the Assad regime, Hamas was forced to evacuate its large headquarters
in Damascus, and Syria severed all ties with the group.
Next came a rift with Hezbollah, after Hamas leaders joined the wave of Sunni
criticism over the Shiite militia's intervention in Syria this spring. Some
Hamas commanders in charge of military cooperation between the two
organizations were ordered to leave Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut, and all
bilateral military arrangements -- including weapons supplies, training,
intelligence exchange, and so forth -- are currently suspended. Thus far,
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected all Hamas requests to meet with
him about the impasse, though some delegates have been permitted to speak with
his lieutenants at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
Even more devastating for Hamas is its strained relationship with Tehran, which
for years served as the group's primary financial sponsor and main provider of
long-range missiles (including advanced training by the regime's elite Qods
Force personnel in Iran and Syria). Furious with Hamas's decision to join the
anti-Shiite rhetoric of Muslim Brotherhood spiritual guide Yusuf al-Qaradawi,
Tehran has substantially reduced its monthly subsidy to the Gaza government.
And even if the Egyptian military had not clamped down on the border tunnels,
weapons smuggling into Gaza would still have stopped because of Iran's
determination to punish Hamas. In any case, no new supplies are reaching
Hamas's military wing (the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades) for the time being.
Other providers of assistance to Hamas are beginning to close their pocketbooks
as well. Two key donors -- Turkey and Qatar -- have failed to comply fully with
their past pledges. Ankara has switched its attention to the Syrian crisis,
while Qatar has just undergone a leadership change, spurring Doha to reassess
its role as the Brotherhood's banker and reduce its contributions to Hamas.
Similarly, private donors from other Persian Gulf states -- especially the
United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait -- are now under pressure to
stop funding Hamas as their governments wage a wider campaign to curb the
The serial loss of allies and aid has produced a severe split within the Hamas
leadership. Khaled Mashal, who was chosen to continue as head of the Executive
Committee (formerly the Political Bureau) in April, insists that Hamas had to
adjust itself to the policies of the Brotherhood's "International
Organization," the movement's worldwide top body. Yet other leaders
disagree, causing Mashal to lose most of his authority.
For example, in contrast to Mashal's Egypt focus, Gaza prime minister Ismail
Haniyeh has emphasized the need to defend Hamas control over the strip.
Although he accepted the position of deputy Executive Committee chief after
failing to win the top Hamas post in April, he no longer heeds orders from
Other leaders have urged speedy reconciliation with Iran, emphasizing that
Hamas cannot afford to divorce itself from the "resistance axis". The
most adamant proponent of this view is Imad al-Alami, the group's former
permanent envoy in Tehran and head of the "Intifada Committee," now
returned from Damascus to Gaza. He is supported by military figures such as
Muhammad Deif and Marwan Issa, and by politicians such as Mahmoud al-Zahar. In
contrast, Mashal received heavy criticism for attending a much-publicized May
sermon in Qatar in which Qaradawi railed against Iran and its partners. His
response was that he did not have prior knowledge of what Qaradawi would say.
In recent weeks, Hamas has sent delegations to Beirut and Tehran in order to
reach new understandings with Iran and Hezbollah. Although both parties replied
that they will keep their doors open to Hamas, they also noted that they cannot
normalize relations until the group modifies its position on Syria's war and
Iranian/Hezbollah involvement there.
Internally, recent Hamas leadership meetings in Doha and Istanbul have failed
to produce compromise between rival factions. The discussions have also shown
that power is quickly shifting from veteran leaders to the Hamas
members released from Israeli jails last year in exchange for hostage Gilad
Shalit. Yahia al-Sanwar is becoming the ultimate arbiter in the group's
internal affairs, while Saleh al-Aruri, based in Turkey, has taken sole control
of the movement's activities in the West Bank. (Although the Turks are allowing
Aruri and his staff to pursue the rebuilding of Hamas infrastructure in the
West Bank, there is no evidence that they are turning a blind eye to terrorist
operations planned from Turkish soil.)
Hamas's current weakness -- amply demonstrated by its serious financial
difficulties, internal squabbling, growing isolation, and inability to
implement a military buildup program -- means that the group's leadership could
face growing challenges in Gaza as economic conditions worsen. For the first
time in years, opportunities might present themselves to encourage Gazans to
publicly protest Hamas's authoritarian regime and harsh Islamist measures.
Local resentment toward the group has been building for a long time, leading
the government to expand its internal security apparatus.
Although encouraging active popular opposition to Hamas would not be easy, it
is not in the realm of fantasy. For example, it could be one of the topics
discussed in upcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One important
question is the shape and scope of the PA's financial aid to Gaza -- namely,
whether it helps Hamas maintain its $890 million annual budget, or whether it
can be restructured to assist anti-Hamas forces in the strip, who are now
deprived of any meaningful aid.
*Ehud Yaari is a Lafer International fellow with The Washington Institute and a
Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television.