A Hamas Divided
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Whenever the Israel-Palestine conflict is in the news, too much ink is wasted over moralizing rather than analyzing. Instead of trying to explain what is going on, provide proper context, and predict reasonably what might follow, commentators bicker over who has the moral high ground.
These endless polemics do nothing to help.
A proper analysis should begin by noting that since the start of this year, there has been a significant increase in rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza.
Operation Cast Lead, Israel's attack on Gaza militants during the winter of 2008-2009, proved to be damaging for Israel's image abroad. There was substantial loss of Palestinian civilian life and the initial Goldstone report accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians. But the military operation achieved its goal of at least substantially reducing rocket attacks from Gaza.
Not only did Hamas refrain from carrying out such attacks, but the ruling group in Gaza also kept in check more hard-line groups like Islamic Jihad.
The key to understanding the increase in rocket attacks this year is the internal rivalry within Hamas. As Hussein Ibish points out, a distinction ought to be made between the domestic leadership of Hamas in Gaza and the officials in exile (what Ibish terms the "Politburo") who are responsible for Hamas' relations with foreign governments.
The problem for the Politburo is the fallout from Syria and (to a lesser extent) Iran, such that Khaled Meshaal -- the official leader of Hamas -- has had to relocate from Syria to Qatar.
In turn, it should be noted -- as I did in an article last year entitled "Sunni Realignments"— that both Turkey and Qatar have been cementing ties with the domestic leadership in Gaza. This trend has become all the more apparent this year.
For example, just last month Qatar promised some $400 million to aid reconstruction efforts in Gaza and the emir paid a visit to the territory itself. Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the prime minister of Hamas -- Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Gaza -- at the start of this year, with proposals to provide unspecified aid for humanitarian projects in Gaza.
As Ibish notes, compounding this shift in alliances and internal rivalry in Hamas was Meshaal's announcement in September that he would step down as Hamas leader. This means that the contest for the leadership is between Haniyeh in Gaza, and the second most senior official in exile, Musa Abu Marzook in Cairo.
The loss of much of the Politburo's ties with traditional "resistance bloc" allies Syria and Iran, and the support pledged for the Gaza leadership by Turkey and Qatar, mean that it is in the faction's interest to assert itself as the true face of resistance against Israel.
By recommencing its own rocket attacks and being much more lenient with the hard-line groups in Gaza, the domestic leadership has the chance to take power decisively away from the officials-in-exile, especially regarding relations with foreign governments.
A further incentive to assert an image of active hostility lies in the fact that Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has been losing its credibility. This year, Arab donors have not followed up with aid pledges, and as a result the PA is struggling to pay public employee salaries.
Perhaps the biggest credibility boost for Hamas (as opposed to the PA) in adopting a stance of renewed active resistance is the PA's security forces close work with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to prevent militant attacks emanating from the West Bank. This, of course, is the very same IDF that has now caused Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza with its bombing campaign against Hamas targets.
The Israeli response to the escalation of rocket launches isn't a sign of opportunistic electioneering by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It simply reflects a desire for Israel to reassert a deterrence policy toward Gaza, amid complaints for months that not enough was being done to deal with the attacks.
The likely short-term outcome of this conflict is a repeat of the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. Some kind of truce will be negotiated -- perhaps mediated by Egypt, whose stance towards Hamas is much more sympathetic under Mohammed Morsi, as illustrated by the 24/7 opening of the Rafah border crossing. Further, there will be at least a temporary lull in rocket attacks from Gaza, as Hamas will probably restrain itself again and revive efforts to keep more radical militants in check.
Yet Hamas' position in Gaza will not be weakened, and Arab governments across the region could start providing aid to Hamas. They could also abandon the PA, which, after its current statehood bid at the UN that is unlikely to translate to anything practical, may simply be left on struggling lifeline support from Israel and the West.
The traditional "resistance bloc" may have collapsed and Hamas' officials-in-exile may have lost much of their influence, but the group in Gaza looks stronger than ever, and in turn, the Palestinian movement looks to be ever more divided.
Update from November 19, 2012: Jonathan Spyer has an interesting analysis at the Weekly Standard on the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. A couple of points to comment on:
1. Spyer is right to draw attention to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as something that partly emboldened the leadership of Hamas in Gaza to renew armed hostility to Israel over the course of this year.
2. I disagree with Spyer that Hamas' decision-making constituted a "miscalculation" in his assertion that "apparently, the movement assumed that Israel shared its perspective on the changed balance of forces and would acquiesce to Hamas's allowing and participating in terror attacks on Israel's south."
On the contrary, I would argue that Hamas was expecting that Israel would respond at some point and has all along been hoping to use the inevitable consequence -- most notably the larger number of Palestinian fatalities as opposed to Israeli losses -- to gain a propaganda victory and strengthen its position in Gaza, with one aim being to redirect the already waning support of Arab governments for Fatah and the PA towards the leadership in Gaza by inducing said governments to follow the lead of Turkey and Qatar.