“Since the signing of the Cairo agreement last May, Hamas has demonstrated uncharacteristic flexibility,” writes Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri in the leading Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.
At the closing session of that meeting, Hamas' Politburo Head Khalid Mish’al agreed not to sit on the dais, thus consecrating the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. Mish’al delivered a unifying speech in which he mandated Abbas to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people for an entire year – much longer than the President had called for.
Mish’al also acceded to Abbas's request to postpone the process of reconciliation in order not to overshadow Palestinian efforts to gain UN recognition and Arab and international efforts to kick start the stalled peace process.
Mish’al's flexibility did not go down well with many of his comrades in Hamas, who criticized the readiness with which he made these concessions. But this criticism was short-lived and was no more than a storm in a teacup.
This moderate and flexible stance continued when Mish’al met Abbas again last November and in the meetings between Hamas and Fateh since. Those meetings took place against the backdrop of the [February 2012] Doha declaration, which coincided with the intensification of the Syrian crisis and Hamas' decision to move its offices from Damascus to other Arab capitals. They also took place after the consummation of the deal with Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit.
At the November meeting, Mish’al agreed to embrace civil [unarmed] resistance and to continue observing the truce with Israel. He also agreed to extend the truce to include the West Bank as well as Gaza, and declared his adherence to the idea of a Palestinian state – authorizing the PLO to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf. On February 6th, Mish’al agreed [in Doha] that President Abbas should head a new Palestinian government of national unity.
The Doha declaration led to an unprecedented spate of disagreements inside Hamas. The movement's Politburo then decided to hold a meeting in Cairo as a result of which it declared its support for both the Doha declaration and the implementation of the Cairo agreement. But it was also reported that the Hamas Politburo introduced so many caveats that it made it very difficult – if not impossible – for those two documents to be implemented. This explains why the formation of the new government was put off.
Hamas leaders vehemently objected to Abbas leading the new government, believing that this would indicate a victory for the Palestinian President and his political program. They demanded that the Palestinian constitution be amended before a government is formed. They also refused to link the new government to a specific political program, and made starting the process of registering voters in Gaza conditional on (a) the new government seeking a vote of confidence in parliament, (b) ensuring an appropriate climate for holding elections in the West Bank, (c) Israel, American, and international guarantees that election results would be respected in order to avoid what happened after the last elections in 2006, when Israel and much of the international community did not recognize Hamas' victory.
Disagreements inside Hamas not only involved the Doha declaration, but the movement’s position vis-à-vis Syria as well. While some Hamas leaders criticized the Syrian leadership and supported the uprising, others preferred to keep an equal distance between the Damascus regime and the Syrian people. Hamas leaders also quarrelled over Mish’al's trip to Tehran, which took place against the advice of many of his colleagues and allies, with some calling for backing Iran and fighting alongside it if Israel attacks its nuclear installations, and others preferring that Hamas not get involved.
It is quite natural for a movement as large as Hamas to experience disagreements from time to time. This is especially the case at a time of fundamental change in the Arab world, which, among other things, made it impossible for Hamas to maintain its presence in Syria for political, security, and practical reasons.
Damascus-based Hamas leaders could no longer receive visitors or carry out their political and propaganda activities because of the pressures on them by both the regime and opposition. Despite the fact that the Arab Spring led to victories for Hamas's allies in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, the Palestinian movement found itself in a difficult position. Keen to benefit from those victories, Hamas is equally eager not to lose what gains it has already made. This is the crux of the disagreements within Hamas.
On one hand, Hamas clearly benefited from the Arab Spring. Its [Gaza-based] PM Ismail Hanniyeh recently visited Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, where he received the support Hamas believed it deserved since it won the 2006 elections.
On the other hand, Hamas feels that it ought to moderate its positions so as not to become a burden for its allies now in power, and to be able to headquarter itself in Cairo, Amman, Doha, and Ankara. The new Arab rulers need to establish cordial ties with the United States and Europe; they also need regional stability, which requires maintaining peace with Israel.
The inter-Hamas disputes and disagreements have other dimensions as well. Because the movement is soon to hold elections to choose a new leadership, there is intense competition between aspirants who differ on many levels including the need to re-establish Hamas' headquarters in Gaza as it was under its founder the late Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Some Hamas leaders believe that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood necessitates that the movement maintains its stance on resistance and continues its alliances with Iran, Syria, and Hizbollah – not to defect to the other side without receiving anything in return. These leaders believe that Hamas's steadfastness in Gaza helped other Islamist forces seize power in their countries. Why, they ask, should Hamas pay such a high price for the victories of others?
There is no doubt that the distance between the strategic opportunity opened up by the Arab revolts for the Palestinian cause on one hand and the Palestinians' ability to make use of it on the other is large. The Palestinian cause, which is passing through a particularly delicate phase, cannot wait until stability returns to the countries of the Arab Spring (this applies especially to Syria).
The Palestinians (Fateh, Hamas, and the other factions) must move fast and exploit the current Arab, regional, and international preoccupation with developments in the Middle East, the Iranian crisis, and the presidential elections in the U.S., to restore their national unity and thus allow themselves to benefit from the opportunities open to them.
In other words, Fateh and Hamas must allow the national interest to override their narrow factional interests. Unity under the umbrella of the PLO/PA must be the priority. Under this umbrella, Hamas would not be forced to tread the same route that the late Yasser Arafat and President Abbas trod – a route that led to recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, unilaterally implementing agreements, and building the institutions necessary for statehood.
Hamas must consolidate its Palestinian role and demonstrate its commitment to the democratic Palestinian project. It should avoid committing the potentially catastrophic error of sacrificing Palestine in favor of a wider Islamist project. History shows that upholding the unique role of the Palestinian people never clashed with the Arab, Islamic, or human dimensions of the Palestinian cause – on the contrary.
The United States and Europe recognized the Muslim Brotherhood because they won in elections in their countries and proved themselves on the ground. Consequently, the new rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, etc. do not need to go very far to please the West in order to maintain their hold on power. Hamas must understand that too much moderation will lose it everything and gain it nothing.
The only way for Hamas to win the world's recognition is by proving itself on the ground as part of a unified Palestinian polity – and not by competing with Fateh to make concessions to Israel and the West in order to be crowned leader of the Palestinian people. Such competition means a net loss for the Palestinians and a net gain for Israel.
Hamas's current travails, although serious, are natural; they depend though on future Arab, regional, and international developments. It is not inevitable that the current differences will lead to splits within Hamas. As long as it maintains a moderate position, Hamas could benefit greatly from the rise of political Islam in the region. Hamas must recognize that its real power lies in the influence it wields among its own people and in playing an active part in Palestinian political life.
“Hamas must work hard and fast for rebuilding Palestinian politics on foundations of democracy and genuine partnership before it is too late,” concludes Masri.