Since the outbreak of the war in Syria more than a decade ago, the Palestinian resistance group Hamas has been facing a major set of challenges in its foreign relations inside West Asia.
In 2011, Khaled Meshaal, then-chief of the movement’s political bureau in Damascus, made a game-changing decision for his organization during a secret and urgent visit to Doha, where alongside other Hamas officials including Musa Abu Marzouk and Ezzat al-Rasheq, he placed his bets on Qatar and Turkey – and against Syria.
This decision would ultimately mean peeling Hamas away from its foundational relationship with the region’s Resistance Axis (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and others), and relegating it to a no man’s land of political ambiguity during the Syrian crisis
Six years later, in 2017, Meshaal left the Hamas political bureau he had headed since 1996, with Gaza-based Ismail Haniyeh replacing him at the top and returning the movement’s decision-making center to the occupied Gaza Strip.
Hamas origins are in Gaza
In 1973, a Muslim Brotherhood institution called the Islamic Complex was founded in the Gaza Strip, becoming the foundation of the future Hamas organization later in 1987. Since then, the main movement has been in Gaza.
In 1992, the Israeli occupation carried out a mass deportation of 415 Palestinians to Marj al-Zohour in Lebanon. The goal of that campaign was to empty the occupied territories of influential and leaders, many of them affiliated to Hamas.
When the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) forces entered Gaza and the West Bank two years later in 1994, a large number of those deported returned to the occupied territories, but were now confronted with the PA’s security services.
The PA fought and arrested numerous Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leaders, while others went into hiding. When the Al-Aqsa second Intifada began in 2000, these leaders emerged from PA prisons and ran the resistance operations during the uprising.
In those years, Hamas’ leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza were equally influential. But in 2002, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s largest military operation in the West Bank since 1967, besieging the PA’s headquarters, killing hundreds of Palestinians, and injuring and detaining thousands more. The operation ended the resistance’s position in the West Bank.
In contrast, the leadership in the Gaza Strip remained strong – until Israel’s 2004 assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, which caused a major dispute between Khaled Meshaal and Yasin’s successor Abdelaziz Rantisi, when the former asked the latter to move Hamas’ leadership abroad.
The leadership leaves Gaza
When Rantisi was assassinated by occupation forces less than a month later, Meshaal called on the movement’s leaders in Gaza to speed up the election of a new leader to succeed Rantisi. The elections were held in secret, presumably for security reasons following the murder of two of the movement’s leaders in quick succession.
But soon after, although still maintaining a Gaza hub, the Hamas leadership moved abroad with Meshaal in charge. For many years since, the political bureau abroad has become the center for deciding Hamas’ policies.
While Hamas’ politburo included leaders from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – and even detainees held captive by Israel – it was difficult, if not impossible, to travel abroad for important Hamas meetings.
This reality caused a sense of ‘inferiority’ among Gaza’s leadership, before it took a different turn in 2006, the year Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, at which point Gaza returned to become an influential center in Hamas’ decision making.
Then, in 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip by force of arms and expelled Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Despite these developments, the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, where Meshaal was based, remained strong and in control of decision making.
But then, in 2011, events in Syria changed everything.
The coup d’etat
The years from 2011 to 2017 have been very difficult for Hamas. There are many reasons for this, along with the brutal 2012 and 2014 Israeli aggressions launched on Gaza.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) project that had gained steam during the Arab uprisings in 2011, collapsed rapidly in several Arab countries, particularly Egypt where the country’s elected MB president was ejected from power after only one year in office.
Most critically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintained his hold on power despite a decade long, foreign-backed, mainly Islamist militant insurrection, during which Hamas lost both its presence and privileges in Syria.
The Saudis repeatedly refused to host Hamas leaders and members on its territory, even imprisoning some of them. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt spent years besieging Qatar, the biggest Arab supporter of Hamas and the MB in the Persian Gulf.
Hamas felt that it lost all its cards in the region and as a result, the movement had to make some quick decisions that led to many outcomes:
First, it decided to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in its dealings with post-MB Egypt, which has played an important mediation role in Israeli-Palestinian clashes. Second, Hamas renewed its internal charter established in 1988 and changed several provisions to placate adversaries and friends alike.
Third, the movement transformed its Government in Gaza into a ‘management committee’ rather than a cabinet. Fourth, Ismail Haniyeh was elected head of the political bureau, and Yahya al-Sinwar was elected head of the movement in Gaza.
Lastly, Khaled Meshaal was removed from Hamas decision making body and relegated to its Shura (consultative) Council.
Many circles in the Resistance Axis were happy with some of these changes, and considered Haniyeh and Sinwar to be their new Axis partners in Hamas. Hamas’s rhetoric has shifted under these changes and is increasingly courting the Axis, making public shows of support that were unimagined even a few years ago.
But the honeymoon has not lasted long, because Hamas continues to be beset by contradictions and internal differences.
Can everyone be satisfied?
Sources within Hamas tell the The Cradle that the group’s policy for years has been to “please everyone.”
For example, Hamas’ Lebanon-based leaders like Osama Hamdan and Mahmoud Zahar both praise the Resistance Axis and always thanks Syria.
On another front, there are those who continue to appease Saudi Arabia, such as Khaled Meshaal. There are also those in the Da’i (advocacy) current within Hamas who maintain a Salafist, sectarian strain and attack Iran and Hezbollah.
Sources living in Gaza say there is a Hamas-wide consensus to maintain a strong relationship with Qatar and Turkey. Ismail Haniyeh, on the other end, manages crises when they appear. “He is the man who must be diplomatic and open to all,” the sources add.
This policy may not always bring the desired results.
Saudi Arabia’s anger with Hamas has increased over the past three years, and it has arrested and issued harsh prison sentences against those linked to the movement and residing in the kingdom.
As for Syria, various regional mediations have not yet succeeded in persuading Damascus to allow Hamas to return, for what many Syrians consider to be an unforgivable betrayal during the country’s crisis. The Gaza war in May 2021 softened relations slightly between the two, however, and while rumors abound about a reconciliation of sorts, there have been no such announcements.
Then came Khaled Meshaal’s visit to Lebanon in December 2021 which renewed tensions with Damascus when a negative speech on Syria was attributed to him. As usual, Hamas denied these statements.
“But,” sources say, “the man (Meshaal) was very angry with the way he was received in Lebanon. The movement was also saddened that it believed that Hezbollah and the Iranians were treating Hamas as individuals, not as an organization” when they refused to meet with Meshaal.
Mix the papers again
The most awkward position for Hamas is the war in Yemen. The movement had become close to the Yemeni resistance, Ansarallah, when the latter offered Riyadh an exchange deal to release Hamas prisoners from Saudi prisons. Although the deal failed to materialize, it launched the start of “excellent” communications between the two resistance movements.
What muddied the waters was the Yemeni bombing of the UAE. Hamas has no interest is appeasing Abu Dhabi at the moment, but there’s another problem. Riyadh had just reduced the sentences of Hamas prisoners due to some mediation, when the Saudis and Emiratis launched a large-scale, indiscriminate bombing campaign that killed Yemeni civilians.
As a result of the massacres, marches took place in Gaza on 22 January “in support of the oppressed in Yemen.” Absent for many years during the Syrian conflict, Palestinian demonstrators began once more waving photos of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and other leaders in the Resistance Axis, including Ansarallah Leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi.
This scene provoked the Saudis to such an extent that Hamas had to communicate with PIJ and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to stop – or at least ease – public displays of solidarity with Yemen.
But what made matters worse was Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar’s remarks to the popular, Arabic-language Al-Mayadeen media outlet, in which he said that “the aggression against Yemen and the aggression of occupation against the Palestinians are similar.”
Sources who spoke to The Cradle say that Zahar was reproached internally. On the same day, Hamas issued a statement saying it did not want to interfere in Arab affairs but hoped the war in Yemen would soon stop.
On the other hand, the Salafist Da’i current went crazy and launched a violent campaign against Zahar and Sinwar, criticizing the relationship with Iran in internal groups. Then, ironically, Fatah and the UAE-backed leader Mohammed Dahlan lined up with the Da’i Salafists to attack Gaza’s pro-resistance march.
Because of these conflicting narratives causing friction within the movement, Syria seems to be slowing down and thinking twice about giving Hamas a green light to return to Damascus. The contradictory public discourse has provided the Syrians with a tangible reason to question both Hamas’ commitment to the resistance, and its vulnerability to external pressure.
Syrian sources in Damascus told The Cradle that the government is unlikely to accept a reconciliation with Hamas before the movement’s internal conflicts are resolved.
Their view was, since Hamas exited Syria of its own volition, it should stay outside until the Syrian crisis has been fully resolved with other regional and international players. This will also ensure that foreign intermediaries involved in a Syrian political settlement don’t once again include Damascus’ relations with Hamas as a sticking point.
It is safe to conclude that there are three strong currents that continue to plague Hamas’ foreign policy decisions and statements from within.
The first current is led by Meshaal who was re-elected to lead the movement’s executive branch abroad in its 2021 elections.
Meshaal is arguably the movement’s fourth highest-ranking official after Haniyeh and Sinwar (residing in Gaza) and Hamas’ leader in the West Bank, Saleh al-Arouri (living abroad).
The second current is the Salafist Da’i one, which while strengthened in the past decade, had its power sharply curbed in the last elections. Da’i’s threat is that it remains as a small but influential spoiler in any bold, new Hamas’ policy direction.
The third current is what might be called the ‘military’ constituency because of the close relationship between its leadership and the Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing) leaders, specifically Commander-in-Chief Muhammad Deif and his deputy Marwan Issa, who is the military’s permanent representative in Hamas’ politburo.
The Cradle has learned from several Hamas sources that there is a majority consensus within the movement to designate its relationship with Iran and the Resistance Axis at the level of a “strategic relationship.”
In order to consolidate this decision, the notice has been circulated to Hamas offices in all regions, especially abroad, in writing, not only verbally.
The recent trend, which the Gulf press calls the “Iran Movement,” is the strongest, and the majority of its leaders are from Gaza. Sources said, that over the past two months, Hamas officials had decided to send some of these leaders abroad and upgrade their positions within the external organization too.
Among them is Khalil al-Haya, the Hamas appointee in charge of relations with Arab and Islamic countries, who currently resides in Qatar.
This plan strengthens Gaza’s ‘share’ in the movement’s leadership abroad, opening up room for policies and work that Meshaal has been trying to prevent for years.
A Hamas source says these subtle changes over the past four years has brought Hamas back to its original roots: “Gaza is the basis for starting and working, although this fact does not diminish the right of the West Bank or other areas, but the Gaza Strip has been the main tributary and today it is the greater weight of the movement’s power,” he affirmed.
While Hamas is viewed as the only organization in modern Palestinian political history that has not seen major or serious divisions, the continuing tensions between the three currents continue to cause concern to many at home and abroad.