Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK; Translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
It has been ten years this past June the armed take-over of Gaza by Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) took place, the expulsion of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and turning the enclave into a base of regular attacks against Israel. The debate around whether the world community should recognise this structure, which is part of the international movement Muslim Brotherhood, as a legitimate participant of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, go hand in hand with cooperation with the UN in Gaza.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation maintains contacts with Hamas, following the concept that Russia has no opponents among organisations not directly attacking its territory. I would like to note that hopes for mediation of the Hamas crisis (the seizure of Russian diplomats in Iraq) did not materialise, and in Syria the militant organisation opposes the regime of President Assad, opening the way to his opponents to the centre of Damascus, which is directly contrary to Russian interests. Today Hamas is facing a number of challenges in the intra-Palestinian and regional context. The present article is based on materials from Professor Z. Khanin, expert of the MEI, prepared for the institute.
Behind the Red Line
The main current challenge for Hamas is the change of relations of Israel to the radical Islamist regime in Gaza, associated with the necessity of a revision of the “policy of deterrence”, different options which apply to the sector after the retreat of the Israelis from there in 2005 according to the “unilateral disengagement” plan of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The basic principle of this doctrine was the idea of “managing the crisis in Gaza without controlling Gaza”, including the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied sector, as well as conducting with Hamas direct talks on their terms. The Israeli government adopted an updated version of the “doctrine of containment” after the Knesset elections in 2009 based on the experience of the operation “Cast Lead”, running from December 2008 to January 2009.
The new policy included the maintenance of the regime through a limited blockade of Gaza, aimed at countering the smuggling of arms and materials for the production of ammunition, including rockets, with which the Hamas fighters periodically launched into the southern regions of Israel. It did not touch water supply, electricity, cash, medicines, building materials and humanitarian supplies, which Jerusalem was supplying Gaza, with hundreds of trucks with goods for its resident passing daily through Israeli territory. This new policy was supposed to respond to every attack by Islamists with intensive restricted operations and the elimination of terrorist leaders, in combination with economic, political and diplomatic pressure on the government of Hamas in Gaza.
It was implemented in August 2011 when the militant groups operating in the Gaza have carried out a major terrorist attack in Eilat and intense shelling of cities and villages in southern Israel, including Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod. The Israeli Air Force then held a series of operations to destroy the rocketeers from the air, concentrations and headquarters of operational groups of militant units of the terrorists, their training bases, warehouses and arms workshops, as well as tunnels, used for contraband armaments into Gaza from the Sinai peninsula, forcing the Islamists to ask for a cease-fire and the return to the state of “informal truce”.
The leaders of Hamas were expected to abide by simple rules: if they do not cross the unofficial red line, they receive the guarantee that they will not become objects of “targeted killings”, and informal recognition of their sovereignty in internal affairs of the sector controlled by them. In practice, this “sovereignty” meant the responsibility for everything that happens in Gaza, with the prospects of becoming the target of “retaliation operations” against terrorist attacks from Gaza, whoever carried it out. For Hamas leaders, who were forced to accept these rules as a given, in short term prospects such a scheme could be considered as a no small political and diplomatic achievement. But in the medium and especially the long term, this led to the inflation declared by the leaders of Hamas of the status of their movement as the “main forces of Islamic resistance to the Zionist enemy”, that put into question the claim to power in Gaza, to seize the initiative on the “Palestinian Arab street” the “Compromisers and collaborators with the Zionists” from the Palestinian Authority/PLO, and making them less relevant to foreign donors.
A natural solution to the Hamas leaders, which has markedly complicated the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, saw the intensification of the conflict with Israel, which was provoked by them in the summer of 2014. The answer was the IDF’s counter-terrorist operation “Enduring Rock”, the result of which the military organisation of radical Islamists in Gaza received a heavy blow. None of the goals placed by the Hamas leadership for the removal of the Gaza blockade, official recognition of its sovereignty in Gaza, including the financial transfer, bypassing the PNA has been achieved. The civil infrastructure of the Sector disorganised during the conflict, continues to remain so. The majority of resources is plundered or goes to the recovery of the military potential of the organisation. A new conflict with Israel, judging by the mood of the military-political establishment of the Jewish state, will almost guarantee the end of the Hamas leadership in Gaza. The movement faces the threat of drying up of sources of external resources with no alternatives.
Do Not Stand Under the Rock
In many ways the situation was the result of a series of strategic miscalculations by the leadership of the organisation, the primary which can be considered the discord with Iran, which was until 2011 the main patron and sponsor of the Hamas government in Gaza and its leadership abroad. The reason for the discord was the support of Hamas’ related Sunni Islamist radical groups, coming against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. The particular irritation of Tehran and Damascus was caused by the participation of almost two thousand fighters associated with Hamas of Palestinian Arabs living in Syria on the opposite side of the conflict and information caught by the press about the participation of activists of the military wing of the group “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade”, in the training of fighters of the Syrian Free Army. After that, the definition of “ungrateful traitor” was the softest of the terms the government media in Syria awarded the head of the Hamas politburo Khaled Mashal, who moved to Doha from Damascus at the beginning of the civil war in Syria.
However, calculations that Assad will share the fate of other authoritarian leaders of Arab presidential regimes of the Middle East, collapsing at the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, did not pan out. Damascus was capable of keeping control of the capital and part of the territory of the country and with the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese units of the Hezbollah movement, Shite militias, and then the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation counterattacked. Hamas has lost Iran as the main supplier of cash, weapons and instructors of the military wing. Counting on Egypt with the coming to power in 2011 of the Muslim Brotherhood regime collapsed two years later, when in July 2013 the military overthrew the President-Islamist Mohamed Morsi. The organiser of the coup, the new president of the country General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, from the moment of coming to power, pursued a course of political and territorial isolation of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Sector, the former centre operating in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula of terror networks of radical Islamists. The blockade of the Sector by Egypt was more severe than by Israel, aimed at curbing the contraband of armaments, but almost not affecting the civilian sphere. The hopes on R.T. Erdogan, whose regime is the Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood also failed to materialise.
The president of Turkey kept insisting on ending the blockade of Gaza as a condition for normalising relations with Jerusalem, severely deteriorated after the anti-Israel “Freedom Flotilla” provocation supported by Ankara in 2010, but removed the request, when he understood that the confrontation brings him more expenses than advantages. In the end, he was satisfied with instead of “immediate lifting of the blockade” of Gaza with Israel’s acceptance of “Ankara’s special role in the improvement of the humanitarian situation” in the Sector, having the opportunity to declare that “the Sector is unblocked”. There were no strategic investments by Turkey in the economy of Gaza for the past three years. Humanitarian aid that Ankara sends to Gaza is unloaded in the port of Ashdod, where it is inspected, lost in the mass of goods, which Israel sends to Gaza. The result was only the irritation of the Egyptians in the interference in the affairs of Gaza by the Turkish competitors, worsening of relations between Cairo and the leadership of Hamas.
The last strike was the sharp reduction of financial tranches from Qatar, which it appears moved itself to the role of main donor of Hamas in Gaza and at one point in time was competing with other applicants for this role. But it is not up to Hamas. The relocation of the politburo of the organisation from Tehran to Doha after its conflict with the official Syrian regime, were begun in October 2012 when the Emir of Qatar, the first and last of heads of states made an official visit to Gaza. But the “breakthrough of the political and economic blockade”, announced by the head of the government faction of the Gaza Sector Ismail Haniyeh and represented by the Emir, the major reconstruction project of the destroyed infrastructure of the Sector remains fiction.
The Qatari supplies, agreed in 2012, to Gaza through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, a list of consumer goods, building materials and dual-use goods prohibited by Israel ceased with the overthrow of the Cairo regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. The promise of increased help by Qatar to Gaza, made in the entourage of the Emir after the operation “Enduring Rock” in 2014, were not realised then and probably will not be fulfilled in the near future. Presently Doha needs to decide for itself current problems of its own isolation in the Arab World.
Tehran perceives Riyadh and its allies in the Sunni world as a growing threat, and their anxiety increases with the Qatar and Iran partnership. The July 5 published joint communiqué of the KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain contains harsh criticism of the negative reaction of Qatar on the demands to lower contact levels with Iran and to cut cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to media reports, the Qatari political and financial support to Hamas provoked the pressure on the Emirate from the Arabian monarchies, during which six members of its politburo were forced to leave Doha and move to Lebanon, and the strategic partnership between Qatar and Hamas has become irrelevant.
26 Years Later
In the end, the leaders of Hamas began to make intensive efforts to restore relations with Teheran. However this process is not easy, despite the Iranian interests to gain a beachhead on the Mediterranean coast, allowing it to move to the south its influence into the rear of the Sunni world. The stumbling block is the Syrian crisis. The leaders of the Palestinian Islamists declared their intentions to restore relations with Damascus already in March 2015. In an interview with the Lebanese Daily Star the representative of the Hamas politburo in Beirut Rafat Murra strongly denied any relationship of the organisation of attempts of an armed overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. All that was said or declared about the situation in Syria with the leaders of the group did not go beyond “the approval rights of the Arab peoples to claim their legitimate social, political and civil interests”. However the conflict once again reached a boiling point in December 2016 after the capture of Allepo (Khaleb) by Assad’s soldiers, members of Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias when members of the Hamas leadership accused them of genocide of the local Sunni population. In response, Tehran threatened with a complete curtailing of all types of assistance to Hamas in favour of, as a member of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Iranian Parliament Heshmatollah Falahatpishe expressed himself, such “native alternatives” as “Islamic Jihad”, longstanding rival of Hamas in Gaza.
The most recent attempt by Palestinian Islamists to return to the old rules of the game has been taken after the election victory of the Hamas leadership of the Pro-Iranian faction (including the new head of government in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, Salah al-Aruri and others). In May of 2017 the London-based Saudi paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on the meeting in Beirut of senior representatives of Hamas with members of Hezbollah’s leadership and the IRG, where a preliminary agreement was reached on the resumption of financial and military cooperation with Iran. According to media, the formalisation of these agreements was the goal of the delegation held in early August that visited Tehran, led by the head of its politburo Izzat al-Rishko. Together with the Hamas senior leaders Saleh al-Aruri, Zaher al-Jabarin and others, he took part in the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s second term.
It is significant that the meeting between Izzat al-Rishko and the then Foreign Minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, now an advisor on external relations for the spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, began Iran’s partnership with Hamas in 1991. The new meeting of old politicians 26 years later, as hope the leaders of the organisation, will return to its sustained support from Iran. With this bitter lesson the Iranians are not in a hurry to commit massive investments in the civilian infrastructure of the Sector, which is extremely important for the survival of the Hamas regime, and their renewed military aid with conditions designed to prove its relevance to the operational and strategic goals of Tehran. This explains the desire of the leaders of the group to stock up on alternative ways out of isolation.
One of the non-trivial steps taken by Hamas in this regard was the experiment of their alliance with Mohammed Dahlan. This former member of the Fatah/PLO leadership and close ally of the head of the PNA Mahmoud Abbas, his main political opponent, fled from the Sector after the Islamist coup in 2007 in Ramallah, and after the conflict with Abbas and his clan, to Dubai. Using his contacts in Cairo and Abu-Dhabi, he was able, as the leadership of the group was hoping, in exchange for access to the administrative authorities in the Sector to create contact points between the leadership of Hamas and leaders of “moderate Sunni block” countries. However, this scheme, solving the short-term problems of the Islamist regime in Gaza can produce new complexities for them. For example, undermine anew the confidence of Iran in the absence of guarantees from the Sunni regimes on the survival of the Hamas regime.
The use of the levers of influence on the Israeli Arabs in an attempt to heat up the conflict in July around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was another course for the leaders. The meaning of these actions was to demonstrate to potential sponsors that the group remains a serious factor that should not be ignored. However, the costs of “reactivation” of Hamas cells inside the “Green Line”, which came under attack by the Israeli intelligence, outweigh the winning.
Alive, Until Needed
Thus, if speaking of the crisis of the idea of political Islamic fundamentalism itself in the Palestinian Arab media is too early, the regime of radical Islamists in Gaza has few options remaining. Hamas, paradoxically, rests on the unwillingness of Israel to eliminate its infrastructure in Gaza or allow Egypt to do it. As the Israeli analysts claim, among which should be attributed to the former head of “Nativa” J. Kedmi, the retention of power by Hamas in Gaza by limiting its capacity to wage war is part of the political game by the Israeli leadership with the untrusted Abbas, who believe that his days are numbered, and sceptically approach the transition of Gaza under the control of Ramallah.
According to this logic Hamas in Gaza worries Cairo, stimulating its cooperation with Jerusalem in security questions, intensifies the contradictions between Egypt, Iran, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and demolishes the idea of Palestinian unity. It is significant when understanding that long-term peace with Israel no Palestinian leadership is interested and at best to limit themselves to a political and diplomatic war against it, provided that it cannot count on the success in the military terrorist activities. The “peaceful process” turned out to be for Israel a catastrophic mistake but Jerusalem is not yet ready to admit. Hamas in Gaza illustrates this, removing from the Israeli leadership the responsibility for this strategic failure with minimal domestic political costs.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute