Squeezed on all sides, Hamas bids for reconciliation

GAZA CITY, Gaza — When Hamas announced this week it would accept demands from rivals Fatah in a bid for Palestinian reconciliation, it was the latest in months of shifts for the terrorist group.

Faced with isolation, the weakening of a key ally and a humanitarian crisis, Hamas has reached out to former allies and old enemies.

Beyond its Palestinian reconciliation steps, which many analysts view with skepticism, the group which runs the Gaza Strip has rebuilt bridges with Iran and turned to Egypt for help.

An improvement of relations with Iran has unlocked millions of dollars in aid, but left Israelis worried it makes a new round of conflict more likely.

Concerning Egypt, Hamas wants Cairo to open its border with the Gaza Strip, but has been pressed to take steps toward Palestinian reconciliation in return.

Ahmed al-Wadia, political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Israa University, said the strategy of simultaneously opening up to Egypt, Iran and Fatah “has changed the shape of Hamas’s relations with the countries of the region.”

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union, has faced a deepening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and a combination of factors that further isolated it.

The strip is enduring a severe electricity shortage and lacks clean water, while it also has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates.

It has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade for around a decade, with Israel having fought three wars with Hamas since 2008.

Qatar, one of the strip’s main financial backers, has been weakened recently due to pressure from other Gulf countries.

Hamas’s decade-long split with Fatah worsened in March after the Islamist group’s creation of what Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas saw as a rival government in Gaza.

He responded by cutting electricity payments and salaries for public employees in Gaza, among other moves.

There has also been pressure from within Gaza. Thousands took to the streets in January over electricity shortages.

New man in charge

In March, Hamas elected as its Gaza head Yahya Sinwar, a former leader in its military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades.

Two months later, Ismail Haniya became the movement’s new overall head, replacing Qatar-based Khaled Meshaal.

Some analysts say Sinwar, with the military wing’s backing, has increasingly asserted his control.

“Sinwar makes the decisions now and that helps him apply his vision. His goal is develop the abilities of the movement’s military,” Hamza Abu Shanab, a Hamas specialist, told AFP.

Grant Rumley, research fellow at the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of a recently published book on Abbas, said Hamas leaders’ primary aim is “survival” after increasing isolation.

One key policy has been encouraging Egypt to reopen Rafah, the only border crossing from Gaza apart from with Israel.

Hamas has had hostile relations with Cairo since the Egyptian military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and replaced him with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Hamas began as an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement but under Haniya has adopted a conciliatory tone with Sisi.

On Sunday, Hamas leaders announced they would give in to demands from Fatah.

Under the proposals, they would hand control of Gaza to a unity government and prepare for elections.

The announcement, made after Egyptian brokering, was as much a message to Sisi as to Abbas, Rumley said.

“The story of reconciliation is theatre, and the audience is largely the Egyptians,” he told AFP.

Hamas has now done most of what Egypt requested as a precondition for opening the border, he said.

As for Palestinian reconciliation, there are doubts over whether the steps Hamas announced will result in further concrete action.

Hamas still runs a de facto separate administration in Gaza and commands the security forces there.

Iranian aid

At the same time as reaching out to Egypt, Hamas has sought to realign with Israel’s largest enemy — Iran.

Tehran was the main patron to Hamas for years before a falling out over Syria in 2011, when Hamas distanced themselves from President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Earlier this year, Haniya ordered senior Hamas figures to undertake a secret visit to Iran to patch things up, Hamas figures and analysts said.

In August, a delegation to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration crystallised improving relations.

Hamas and Iranian leaders refuse to confirm figures, but one senior Hamas source put the Iranian support at $15 million a month.

In addition, Iran provides training and weapons, the source said.

Last month, Sinwar told a rare press briefing the country was once again its “largest supporter” for “weapons, finance and training to Al-Qassam.”

“Some people in Hamas may find it uncomfortable to develop the relationship with Iran, but their voices are now not influential,” Abu Shanab said.

Wadia said the move makes sense for Tehran as well.

“Hamas is in need of Iran’s financial and military support in the face of it being squeezed and Iran realises that Hamas is an advanced front in its alliance on Israel’s border,” he said.

Bassem Naim, a senior Hamas official, said the movement felt emboldened by Iranian support.

“Israel is realizing it no longer has all the cards.”

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