(By: Nour Abu Eisheh - Participant in “Preparing Public Policies and Strategic Thinking” Training Programme) - MASARAT
The formation of the new political bureau of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) under the leadership of Ismail Hanieh coincided with Donald Trump’s assumption of the US presidency. US Congress members were quick to adopt policies targeting the movement, starting with a draft bill to penalise countries which Congress says “support Palestinian terrorism”, particularly Hamas, all the way up to putting Hanieh at the top of the US terrorism list.
Recently, Hamas’ relations with regional and international parties have diverged widely, improving with some countries like Egypt and Iran, undergoing a mending process with Hizbollah and Syria and declining with other parties, particularly Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The US administration’s hostile position towards Hamas and its pressures on some countries to blockade the movement politically and economically give rise to questions on the future of Hamas’ external relations.
Hamas, which has ties to influential regional parties such as Qatar and Turkey, faces the prospect of cooling external relations under the Trump administration, while its relations with Egypt are expected to continue to be governed by mutual interests.
The US position on Hamas is not new. The movement has been subject to US sanctions since the mid-1990’s. It was placed on the US list of terrorist organisations in 1997 and the former head of the movement’s political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouq was detained (1993-1997). Subsequently, several leaders, including leaders of Ezzedein al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, were added to the US list of terrorist organisations: Yahya al-Sinwar (the movement’s leader in Gaza), Rouhi Mushtaha (a member of the political bureau), Mohammad al-Deif (the commander of brigades) and Fathi Hammad (a member of the political bureau).
The US administration appears to be planning further sanctions against Hamas, as evidenced by Trump’s statement at the Islamic Arab-US summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in May 2017 in which he described Hamas as “a terrorist threat in the region.”
The New Political Bureau
The most prominent positions in Hamas’s new political bureau under Hanieh have been dominated by personalities well-known for their military mentalities and their distinctive relations with Iran – the arch enemy of the US, which is trying to blockade Tehran and undermine its influence. Saleh al-Aruri has become Hanieh’s deputy, and al-Sinwar has become the movement’s leader in the Gaza Strip.
The composition of the political bureau has redrawn the map of Hamas’ external relations, particularly with regard to strengthening the movement’s relations with Iran, which is the largest military and financial backer of the Qassam Brigades. On the other hand, the price of Hamas’ closer relations with Iran has been a deterioration in its relations with regional US allies. Al-Aruri has left Qatar  as a result of Israeli and US pressure on Doha, and has gone to Beirut, which is the stronghold of Hizbollah. The latter is supported by Iran.
The effect of the new political bureau’s composition on the Palestinian Cause
The composition of Hamas’ new political bureau threatens the success of the new US approach to the Palestinian issue. That approach transcends the issue of Jerusalem and is aimed at eliminating the issue of the return of the refugees to the lands from which they were expelled in 1948.
Although Hamas accepted the two-state solution along the borders of 1967 before the election results of the new political bureau were announced, the US has not put that solution forward again. Rather, it has come up with a new approach to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the interests of the Israeli occupation.
Moreover, the emergence of leaders who prioritise developing the movement’s military capabilities and want to widen their scope to include the West Bank and possibly territories outside Palestine such as southern Lebanon in coordination with Hizbollah sharpens hostility with Israel and threatens US interests in the region.
The new political bureau’s composition also dampens speculation that Hamas might disarm during the current phase in keeping with the International Quartet’s conditions for recognising the movement as part of a new Palestinian regime.
The movement’s external relations
The new US administration has drawn closer to the Arab countries that are hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, and this has negatively impacted Hamas’ external relations. As a result of pressures, the movement’s relations, particularly with US regional allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia – which both support the two-state solution – have been negatively affected.
Moreover, Hamas’ return to the Iranian axis (which includes Hizbollah and Syria) could cause the failure of efforts to repair relations with anti- Iranian quarters, given that the movement prefers to establish relations with Iran, which the movement considers “its largest military backer”, according to al-Sinwar.
Firstly, the so-called “Resistance Axis” (Iran, Hizbollah, Syria)
The movement’s new political bureau has improved its relations with Tehran following a period of coldness that began in 2011 as a result of the internal conflict in Syria. A Hamas delegation headed by al-Aruri visited Iran in August 2017 in response to an “official” invitation. Two months later, he met in Lebanon where he has been residing with Hizbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah.
The rapprochement with Iran angered the US and several of its allies. In a statement commenting on al-Sinwar’s comment that Iran is the movement’s largest military backer, Washington accused Tehran of supporting terrorism.
Iran and Hamas agree on several issues, the most important of which are:
Adherence to a position of not recognising Israel and fighting it.
Similar thinking with regard to resistance ideas and the need to liberate the whole of the land of Palestine by means of armed resistance.
Hamas is currently bolstering what it describes as its “strategic” relations with Tehran, particularly given the reduction in the movement’s receipts of regional financial aid. It hopes that its relationship with Iran will restore the financial and military support it wants and will provide it with a strong regional ally.
Iran’s adherence to its relations with Hamas are attributable to the Iranian ideology of resistance, which considers that the Palestinian cause is basic and that supporting it is an imperative. Moreover, supporting the Palestinian cause gives Iran regional weight.
As a result of its rapprochement with Iran, Hamas has drawn closer to Hizbollah, and several meetings have been held to discuss further developing relations. Hizbollah has also given refuge to members of the political bureau, most notably al-Aruri.
As for relations with Syria, it is clear from the previous indicators that Hamas is heading towards mending its relations with Damascus. A source close to the movement said, “A mediation effort by Iran to mend relations between the two sides is underway”. That effort is likely to succeed.
Hamas’ relations with Moscow were not affected when the movement’s relations cooled with Tehran, which was close to Moscow on the grounds that both were in “confrontation” mode with the US.
Hamas’ relationship with Moscow is basically “diplomatic” and never resulted in any political positions that were in favour of the movement. However, Hamas is expected to seek to enhance that relationship to guarantee the support of international powers in the face of the US pressures being exerted on it.
Since winning the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas has developed a distinctive relationship with Qatar, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood group. The latter saw to it that the movement gained power peacefully. That relationship persisted until the US congress accused Qatar of offering active financial and military support to Hamas, and of hosting a number of its leaders, including Khalid Mish’al (the former head of its political bureau) since 2012. This led to a cooling of relations.
The reasons for such a cooling of relations can be summarised as follows:
US pressures aimed at halting Qatar’s support for Hamas.
The strength of Qatari-US relations, and the new approach to the Palestine cause adopted by the US.
Hamas’ efforts to develop its military capabilities and expand its military operation. This differs with Qatar’s viewpoint, which espouses a peaceful resolution to the conflict and the two-state solution.
The understandings that Hamas concluded with Egypt in early June 2017. Al-Sinwar said at a meeting in Gaza that “some quarters are unhappy with our recent rapprochement with Egypt.” That was understood to be a reference to Qatar and was followed by an attack by the Qatari media on Hamas because of its rapprochement with Mohammad Dahlan, who has been dismissed from the National Liberation Movement, Fatah. The Aljazeera.net website referred to that rapprochement as a “political deviation and a mistake that must be corrected.”
The tension in relations between Hamas and Qatar has resulted in the following:
Al-Aruri’s removal from Doha, which means that it is difficult for any Hamas leaders, particularly Hanieh, to reside on Qatari territory.
A severance of Qatar's financial support for projects in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip before resuming it later. This has exacerbated the movement’s financial crisis.
In the interests of preserving distinctive relations with the US, Qatar’s relations with Hamas remain cautious and limited to the diplomatic sphere. Hanieh met at his office with chairman of the Qatari Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza Mohammad al-Emadi on 18/12/2017. It is likely that the diplomatic relationship will remain unchanged, as it does not entail any political or financial obligations.
This does not mean that Qatari projects in Gaza will grind to a halt. Al-Emadi said that “Qatari money to Gaza is being monitored to ensure that it is spent on humanitarian needs (…) and we give Washington correct information about it (…) Qatar’s image with them improves when we tell them what is occurring on the ground, and what we are doing there.”
The change in Ankara’s relations with Washington following the latest crises in the Arab region and the US draft law that imposing sanctions on countries that support Palestinian “terrorism” could cause Ankara to suspend its ties with Hamas at several levels.
In that context, Turkey deported the Iraqi scientist Taha al-Jiburi (the engineer who had collaborated with al-Qassam) from Turkey to Iraq upon his arrival. This was preceded by al-Aruri’s departure from Turkey, where he had arrived after leaving Syria.
Hamas’ relations with Turkey may cool down until the situation regionally is reorganised, and Turkey is able to guarantee stable relations with other regional and international states.
Fifthly: Saudi Arabia
Following the strengthening of relations between Hamas and Iran, and in the light of Sunni Arab and international efforts to undermine Iran’s regional influence, Saudi Arabia tried to repair its relations with Hamas and to pull it away from the Iranian axis. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia supported Egypt in relaunching efforts for a Palestinian reconciliation and prompting Dahlan to initiate understandings with Hamas regarding “societal reconciliation” and adopting a lighter touch in Gaza.
However, those efforts quickly failed, relations deteriorated, and Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman said, “We cannot risk Saudi national security, we live in a region that includes ISIS (. . .) and Hamas and Iran.”
The failure of those efforts is due to Hamas’ attempts to strengthen its relations with Iran, its desire to widen the scope of its military operations against Israel to include the West Bank and other territories, and Saudi Arabia’s wish to please the US by being hostile to Hamas.
Given the closeness of US-Saudi relations and what is described as Saudi flexibility in dealing with the new US approach to the Palestinian problem, relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia are expected to remain tense.
Egypt is an old US ally, has economic and political relations with Israel and at the regional level, it has good relations with Iran and Russia. It currently has a relationship based on “mutual interests” with Hamas, following a previous wave of hostility that prompted Cairo to accuse Hamas of waging attacks inside its territories.
The relationship between Hamas and Egypt is described as “historic”. Egypt mediated ceasefire agreements between Israel and Hamas during military escalations; it sponsored a prisoner exchange between the Qassam Brigades and Israel; and it has been and continues to be an influential actor in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was the first to adopt the term “Deal of the Century” (in reference to the new US approach to the Palestinian issue) during his visit to Washington on 3/4/2017. In addition, Cairo has sponsored reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas.
In the context of mutual interests, Hamas seeks to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, whereas Cairo seeks to secure Egypt’s borders with Gaza.
Although Hamas has gone a long way towards securing the border and setting up a buffer zone, there has been no improvement in living conditions in the Gaza Strip.
Washington is likely to exploit relations between Egypt and Hamas to make gains relating to the overall Palestinian problem in keeping with its new approach. Alternatively, it might seek gains through influencing Hamas’ behaviour so that it concludes direct agreements with Israel that would guarantee prolonged periods of calm along Israel’s border with Gaza.
The future of relations between Egypt and Hamas is likely to depend on two factors: The first is the persistence of mutual interests, which is likely to continue as long as this equation meets Egyptian interests. The second relates to the political regional gains from Hamas that the US and Israel are believed to be seeking through Cairo. Hence, Hamas is being blockaded politically and economically.
The future of Hamas’ external relations under the Trump administration can be summarised as follows:
Cool relations with Qatar and Turkey.
A strengthening of relations with Iran, Hizbollah and Russia.
Attempts to mend relations with Syria in the context of improving relations with Iran.
Continued relations with Egypt until the interests that Egypt hopes will be served through the relationship with Hamas.
Tense relations with Saudi Arabia.
 Announcement that Hanieh is head of the new political bureau, Hamas website, 6/5/2017. https://goo.gl/AHQrK8
 Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee Targets Hamas, Pay to Slay Policies, Press Release, 11.15.17. https://goo.gl/98ZMnj.
 US Department of State, State Department Terrorist Designations of Ismail Haniyeh, 31/1/2018. https://goo.gl/8z3CNw.
 US Department of State, Foreign Terrorist Organizations, https://goo.gl/qtD4Hh.
 US Department of State, Terrorist Designations of Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mustapha and Muhammed Deif, 8/9/2015. https://goo.gl/kZ7bvw.
 US Department of State, State Department Terrorist Designations of Senior Hamas Official – Fathi Hammad, 19/9/2016, https://goo.gl/ZVwylw.
 Hamas: Trump’s Description of the Movement as “Terrorist” is Pro-Israeli Prejudice, Anadolu Agency, 21/5/2017. https://goo.gl/w9D8cv
 Hamas Elects al-Aruri as Deputy Head of Political Bureau, Anadolu Agency, 9/10/2017. https;//goo.gl/NWLYTV
 Who is Hamas’ New Gaza Leader al-Sinwar? Anadolu Agency, 13/2/2017. https://goo.gl/Wzy3zB.
 Al-Sinwar: Washington and Israel Are Threats to Reconciliation, Anadolu Agency, 19/10/2017. https://goo.gl/An7HQF
 First Hamas Leader to Leave Qatar, Veto Gate, 6/4/2017. https://goo.gl/P2xYvs
 Hamas is the Title of the Crisis With Qatar . . . Severing Ties with the Movement Could Backfire on All, CNN Arabiya, 13/6/2017. https://goo.gl/cnM2NM
 Will the Northern and Southern Fronts Unite to Confront Israeli-imposed Isolation?, al-Quds al-Arabi, 20/2/2018. https://goo.gl/fFjrLL
 Haieh’s Message to the Leader Indicates Strategic Relationship with Iran, Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), 22/1/2018. https://goo.gl/BKAdQj
 Damascus To Date Rejects Iranian Mediation to Reconcile with Hamas .. No Visit by the Movement to Syria, al-Quds al-Arabi, https://goo.gl/YE4kfr
 Yaser al-Za’atreh, Hamas and its New Alliances . . Deviation that must be Transcended, Aljazeera Net, 10/9/2017. https://goo.gl/uyA6K4
 Interview with source from Hamas who refused to reveal his name to the researcher.
 Qatar Says Gaza Aid Spares Israel War and Shows Doha Does Not Support Hamas, Reuters, 22/2/2018. https://goo.gl/4ZB4Mp
 Hamas Uses Iran as Intermediary for Release of Qassam Member in Iraq, Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper, 26/3/2018/. https://goo.gl/hoLjNv
 Mohammad bin Salman Affirms Riyadh Shares Joint Interests with Tel Aviv, Qatari al-Arab newspaper, 3/4/2018. https://goo.gl/qdvVtd