Prof. Milton-Edwards teaches at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast.1
A significant dimension of the Arab Spring and its dynamic character is Islamist politics. This Islamism is manifest in both the transition from secular regimes such as Ben Ali's in Tunisia and Mubarak's in Egypt and in a regional shift that has provided opportunities for reformist social-conservative groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) to work in alliances beyond state borders and their licensing regimes. Furthermore, the Arab Spring has also led to the nascent political characterization of facets of Salafism. Militant Islamism, epitomized by al-Qaeda and jihadi-salafi groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has largely appeared to be out of step with the populist Islamist groundswell. Other state actors in the region have exploited the opportunities presented by the Islamist renaissance of the Arab Spring to articulate a foreign-policy vision predicated on increased support for the Sunni political revivalism that has subsequently emerged.
Yet the events that have unfolded across the Middle East since December 2010 have led few to evaluate the role that the Islamist organization Hamas has had to play in the domestic politics of individual states or to consider the consequences of this in terms of the wider region and relations between state and nonstate actors within it. While Hamas has not been directly involved in demonstrations calling for the overthrow of autocratic Arab regimes, as an Islamist organization with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, it is responsive to the issues that underlie them. Consequently, Hamas has maneuvered and attempted to strengthen its domestic position, upstage political rivals and concurrently elevate its regional status. The changes within the region have led to speculation that the organization is undergoing a strategic shift. I attempt to address this issue by examining the domestic positioning of Hamas, including its relations with other Palestinian national actors, as well as by analyzing how Hamas has reacted to the changed regional environment of the Arab Spring.
A DOMESTIC AFFAIR
Although the Arab Spring has not manifested itself in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its effects have still reverberated locally and, it can be argued, the Arab Spring has strengthened Hamas's domestic position in a number of ways.
Islam and Jihad Ascendant
First, Hamas can strengthen its own position by exploiting and dominating the emerging narrative of change associated with the changed ideological environment. One key example of this is the way Hamas has appropriated the narrative of the Arab Spring as an extension of the liberation (jihad) of Palestine. Hence, Hamas leaders and cadres have assiduously cultivated support for the regional Islamist ascendency that the Arab Spring appears to herald. "Any victory in Egypt for the Ikhwan equals a victory for Hamas here in Gaza," stated Hamas Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Awad in December 2011.2 This theme features prominently in Hamas's nationalist narrative and finds support among Palestinians. "The events among our brothers in the Arab world ... ," comments Hamas leader Ismail Radwan, "We are happy with this. We are part of the Ikhwan, we are well-connected. Palestine now, [W]e are looked upon as important because we led the way in showing what can be achieved through the ballot box and power."3 Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshal encapsulated this position in a speech in 2013: "The Arab Spring was also a major strategic development in the path to liberating Palestine and confronting the Zionist project."4 Even if, as others argue,5 the Arab Spring bears little or no relation to the leitmotif of Palestine, Hamas leaders have sought to appropriate this narrative as being about liberating Palestine.
Enemies and Rivals: The Losers
Second, the Arab Spring has had negative consequences for Hamas's enemy in Israel as well as its Palestinian secular counterparts. Hamas has not only publicized, but sought to incorporate, these negative consequences into its narrative of increased power. Hence, both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are excoriated because they can be portrayed as weakened by the events surrounding the Arab Spring. In contrast, and according to its own narrative, Hamas is strengthened and can regain power and popularity. Israel, for example, is portrayed as a loser.6 This can be seen when comparing Hamas's position during Operation Cast Lead (Israel's military assault against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009) with that during Operation Pillar of Defence (launched by Israel in November 2012). In the former, Hamas was weak and regionally isolated; in the latter, which took place in the wake of the Arab Spring and attendant power shifts in the region, Hamas is portrayed as strong because it is now supported by Islamist populist forces and regional actors. "Israel's policy against us failed," commented Hamas founder Mahmoud al-Zahar. "This time the geo-political structure and the Islamic resurgence completely changed this ... [and] we were victorious."7
Furthermore, the context of the Arab Spring was acknowledged as a factor by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the concessions made to Hamas's demands. This was apparent in October 2011 in Israel's agreement with Hamas to release more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In defending his government's decision to the Israeli public, Netanyahu explained how the context had changed for Israel: "With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region ... I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all, for that matter."8 Hamas has succeeded in tapping into the narratives of strength through Islamist ascendency to challenge Israel and appear to wring concessions Israel would otherwise have rejected.
The Arab Spring deposed aging despots such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Hamas read this as a warning to the Palestinian leadership: "Abbas is our Mubarak," contends one Hamas leader, "He has no teeth, no factional support and, like Mubarak, is always under huge external pressure from the U.S. and Israel — this is a fact."9 Hamas foresees a bleak future for Abbas and has developed a new strategy to contend for power in terms of the PLO and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It is clear that Hamas interprets the fall of Arab autocrats, still in its infancy, as an opportunity to be exploited. Hamas also contends that President Abbas, in losing an important ally in Mubarak, is further weakened vis-à-vis Hamas. Until President Morsi of Egypt was deposed in July 2013, Hamas could appear to have much stronger ties to Cairo's new power-holders who, in mediating Palestinian reconciliation, were perceived as favoring Hamas over Fatah. This was acknowledged by PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath: "We are seeking reconciliation [with Hamas] amidst the turmoil of the Arab world — turning the odds for everyone."10 Others within Fatah's highest echelon still believe, however, that the Islamist ascendance in the Arab Spring, including that of their Hamas rivals, can be stemmed. As Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Al-Aloul argues, "We believe in Palestine. We'll stop the Islamist drive, despite the sweep in the region.... The Arab Spring and Islamism stops here!"11 Fatah's difficulties in winning concessions regarding a negotiated settlement with Israel have also meant, however, that Hamas has appeared to benefit.
Legitimacy and Authoritarianism
Third, though in large part explanations of the Arab Spring highlight the inherent challenge to the legitimacy of authoritarian rule in the region, there are few who perceive the threat that regional events present in terms of any contested legitimacy of Hamas's own governance of the Gaza Strip. Hamas has been losing support because it is increasingly authoritarian in particular areas of its governance. Indeed, in the wake of the Arab Spring it can be argued that Hamas has in fact accelerated its authoritarian tendencies, particularly in the realm of social control. Hamas has effectively suppressed popular and factional opposition that might have arisen to mirror the claims of their Arab brethren elsewhere. Indeed, in 2011, Hamas arrested Gazans who organized a solidarity rally with their counterparts in Cairo's Tahrir Square.12 The leadership of Hamas has recognized the regional turmoil that could manifest itself in a challenge to them and their governance of the Gaza Strip. Populist expressions of grievance against governance have now become all but impossible unless officially licensed or sanctioned by the Hamas authorities. Opposition elements are relentlessly harassed and their activities monitored or halted. "They've stopped me from traveling, they have called me in for questioning several times, they've raided my offices, confiscated laptops and files, raided my home at 1 a.m. ... and every time I've tried to rent better premises, the landlord refuses me because he is scared of the Hamas authorities," commented the head of a Gaza Palestinian women's organization.13 "You have to get permission for everything, whether it is to organise a sit-in to call for reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas], whether for Fatah or whether for women's issues. You mostly get refused," commented another Gaza-based activist.14 By the spring of 2013, the limits on freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and other rights and social freedoms, including issues of gender segregation, hairstyle and the role of human-rights organizations, were increasingly being curtailed by the Hamas authorities.15
During the initial heady days of the Arab Spring, protests also broke out in Gaza against Hamas for its failure to achieve reconciliation with Fatah. The regional climate was a significant indication of the rapidity with which such protests could topple incumbent leaders. Hamas, it is contended, in seeking to contain growing popular discontent, re-engaged with its rivals in Fatah; this in turn led to the Qatari-brokered Doha agreement of 2012. The Arab Spring has also led some in the Hamas leadership to rethink the spectrum of Palestinian "resistance" as part of a wider interpretation of the meaning of jihad. Hamas leaders recognize that in the wake of the Arab Spring, nonviolent resistance and the role of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in marshalling and articulating such activities must alter how they, in turn, present themselves. Hamas has successfully deflected attention away from its own democratic deficit in Gaza to the political shortcomings of its rivals. Public discourse in Gaza has been dominated by Hamas's self-ascribed legitimacy narrative, with little public acknowledgement that it sits on an expired mandate and has come to be perceived as impeding further electoral opportunities because it may not win at the polls the second time around.
This is most apparent in the reconciliation process designed to end the breach with Fatah in the wake of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Here, Hamas has hoped to take advantage of the changed regional environment to curtail Fatah's bargaining position. Since 2011, Hamas has on several occasions given new impetus to reconciliation: in the public rapprochement between PA President Abbas and Hamas leader Meshal; in the committees on reform of the PLO, prisoners and passports, and community healing; as well as in its recalibrated relationship with Egyptian, Qatari and other mediators.
With regard to the reform of the PLO and the place of Hamas within it, it is noteworthy that, since the Arab Spring, Hamas has gained access to the PLO through its membership in the Temporary Leadership Forum (TLF) without making major concessions such as endorsing the Oslo Agreement.16 Yet the progress on this track of the reconciliation in the TLF also creates future wriggle room for Hamas in terms of its role within the PLO as a regional and global diplomatic player and the legitimacy that this also bestows. The limits of Hamas's legitimacy and popularity will ultimately be tested when elections are held for the PLO, the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian Legislative Council and the PA presidency. However, public-opinion polls already demonstrate that Hamas does not rate well against its rivals when it enacts repressive measures that amplify the democratic deficit in Gaza.17 Hamas has only been relatively inured to some dimensions of criticism and protest over authoritarian rule and an absence of political freedoms that have been directed at autocratic rulers elsewhere in the Arab world. The removal of President Morsi from power and the subsequent disputes in Cairo, however, have incorporated charges in which Hamas stands accused as co-conspirator with the Egyptian Brotherhood.
Making Alliances with Your Rivals
A distinct outcome of the Arab Spring upheavals in countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt (and to some degree also where the old regimes cling to power) has been the proliferation of new political actors. Islamists are learning that they cannot simply enjoy a monopoly of power but can only govern in alliance with other political actors, including nationalist secularists. In Tunisia, for example, Islamists in Ennahda had to enter into a democratic alliance with the center-left secularists of the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol parties following the legislative elections in October 2011. Yet, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, building alliances and seeking reconciliation with Fatah (or Islamist competitors) is still a major challenge for Hamas. There is a selective appropriation of the importance of the Arab Spring and a consequent reconfiguration of Palestinian Islamism. Hamas, it is contended, understands that it is compelled to unify because of public pressure, but hesitates to do so, in large part due to the lack of trust between itself and Fatah. Still, Fatah may be the weaker party. There is evidence that Hamas may be induced by its new external supporters to believe that the dividends of the Arab Spring are working in their favor, particularly when compared to their rivals in Fatah. More important, the reconfiguration of power within the region has strengthened Hamas's claim to power within the Palestinian arena. Yet, it has also learned that the new dispensation has its limitations, both in terms of the enduring alliances that continue to bolster Israel and the vagaries of transitional politics in neighboring states, of which it can also become a victim. The Egyptian government under President Morsi has not, for example, retreated from its treaty agreements with Israel and went some way towards shoring up a strategic security relationship with Hamas's enemy.
The regional reorientation of Hamas has been reactive, its leadership engaging in apparent strategic shifts that reflect attempts to create opportunities to increase power, leverage and alliance-building within the region. The impetus for such change derives from the effects of the Arab Spring, primarily in Syria and in Egypt. It is also connected with wider regional repercussions in relation to such factors as the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the regional ambitions of Gulf powers such as Qatar.18 There is evidence that the Hamas leadership believes the emerging geopolitical reshaping of the Middle East offers an opportunity to break its regional and international isolation and be recognized as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas leaders have recognized the improvement in bilateral relations with Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Libya and Qatar, as well as the benefits of being supported by the regional framework that is the Muslim Brotherhood. As Khaled Meshal has noted, "Obviously, the revolutions and the major events succeeding them change the map of Hamas' political relations, and have added to and impacted on them."19 Hamas has broken with Syria's Assad regime and has also distanced itself from the Iranian regime, the costs of which remain uncertain. This emphasizes the degree to which multiple, varied and occasionally contradictory factors are simultaneously at work as the Hamas leadership attempts to respond to events.
Adieu to Damascus
The most immediate and pressing change for Hamas came in 2011 and centred on its external headquarters in the Syrian capital of Damascus.20 As the Assad regime became more unstable and the Arab League imposed sanctions, conflicting pressures arose for Hamas leaders between its membership in the resistance axis (jabhat al-muqawama)21 and anti-regime protest from the ascendant Sunni opposition axis. The Assad regime had hosted Hamas since its expulsion from Jordan in 1999 and considered it a fundamental element in its regional calculations and in the resistance axis. When the Arab Spring began in 2011, however, Hamas found itself having to make a decision regarding conflicting obligations: to the Assad regime as it became embroiled in an increasingly sectarian civil conflict and to a Sunni and Palestinian constituency that supported and identified with many of the anti-regime rebels. Khaled Meshal had initially been perceived by some as a mediator with Assad who could direct the Syrian leader away from further civil violence. Before long, however, it became apparent that such mediation was not possible, and Syria's descent into violence accelerated.
The Hamas leadership had made the decision to move away from Syria, both physically and ideologically distancing itself from Assad's regime. The break with Damascus was seen as complete when, in February 2012, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared, in a speech at al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, his support for the Syrian people and the wider goals of the Arab Spring. 22 By 2013, Hamas external headquarters had been relocated to Qatar, symbolizing the new regional configuration of which Hamas had become part. Events in Syria appeared to place Hamas on the horns of a dilemma: to remain part of the resistance axis or join the Sunni Islamist ascendency and garner support as a result of the Arab Spring. Ultimately, it became impossible for Hamas to remain in an axis where principal members were repressing a Sunni opposition movement. The incipient nature of new Islamism and its presentation as moderate and democratic, allied to the energized regional powers of Qatar and Turkey, facilitated the difficult evolution from the resistance axis to a transitional axis of pragmatic Islamism. According to Hamas ideologue Ahmad Yousef,
With events that have happened since the Arab Spring we are in a new age which is based on a form of regional resurgence of Islamism which we, in Hamas, are part of ... Egypt turns to us and says we learnt the lessons from you in terms of what happens when power is only in the hands of Islamists. We all look to the other models in the region that are more pragmatic and realistic in terms of power and power-sharing. This is where the example of Turkey is useful for us.23
Hopes Hit Reality
An important dimension of such a transitional realignment has been the one forged between Hamas and the Islamist rulers of Egypt. Without the change in power in Cairo in February 2011, Hamas would have struggled to survive as effectively as it has. It has long described itself as a "link in the chain" with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood; however, it greeted the electoral victories of its Islamist counterparts in post-Mubarak Egypt with mixed feelings of delight and caution. One of Hamas's founders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, stated that the electoral victories for Islamists were "historic and signal a new era in the history of Egypt."24 Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, declared: "We don't want to rush to pick the fruits, because the new president of Egypt has many challenges ahead of him and many internal files to deal with." He added,
It will have a positive effect, upon us as Palestinians and on Gaza in particular.... We will look to Egypt to play a big, leading role, a historic role, regarding the Palestinian cause, in helping the Palestinian nation get freedom, return home, and totally end the Gaza siege.25
This was clearly a case of Hamas setting out its stall and setting it out early, in terms of domestic and regional audiences and maintenance of the "brotherly" alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power. Certainly Morsi's victory emboldened Hamas to press for more support from its Egyptian counterparts and was perceived as yet another strategic advantage over its rivals in Fatah. Hamas leaders sought to demonstrate that Morsi's victory would "definitely push the reconciliation forward" in ways that would be more amenable to Hamas than to Fatah.26 The victory also gave Hamas reason to hope that the new regime in Cairo would find ways of easing Israel's siege of Gaza and consolidate Hamas's realignment in the Arab world. Hamas leaders were optimistic that, under President Morsi, the border regime at Gaza's only crossing to Egypt — Rafah — would be relaxed, ameliorating the effects on Gazans of Israel's siege.
In the short term, Hamas has been both a strategic winner and loser, despite having endured some unexpected losses, by moving closer to the Islamist-led government and presidency in Egypt. Its main strategic objective has never been achieved: namely, Cairo's complete reorientation in favor of Hamas. As noted above, Egypt has not rescinded its peace treaty with Israel; nor has it upgraded its border regime with Gaza at Rafah to the extent that Hamas would like, or secured an uninterrupted flow of goods.27 Moreover, the Morsi government restricted Hamas's access, both in terms of tax revenues and goods, to the illegal tunnels from Gaza to Egypt and rendered hundreds of them unusable by flooding them. The Egyptian state has also maintained its security dialogue with Israel and actively mediated the ceasefire agreement between Tel Aviv and Gaza following Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.
The Egyptian media also became increasingly hostile to Hamas and accused it of being involved in major security breaches in the Sinai desert, in the deadly Ramadan-meal attack in August 2012 and in other security incidents and attacks. The majority of Egypt's overtures towards Hamas under the Morsi presidency were symbolic, with little substantive content beyond talk of solidarity and diplomatic visits. Perhaps most tellingly of all, Egypt did not reopen its diplomatic mission in Gaza after the humiliating rout of its diplomats in June 2007 during the Hamas takeover. Furthermore, Cairo did not allow Hamas the upper hand in Palestinian reconciliation talks with Fatah, thus frustrating Hamas's attempts to assert itself in its own domestic arena. Finally, the collapse of the Morsi government in July 2013 and the subsequent campaign against the Brotherhood in Egypt has embroiled Hamas and thus undermined its grip on absolute power in Gaza. Hamas's hopes that Egypt under Islamist rule would facilitate its strategic goals have evaporated following the ouster of their allies. Further restrictions on the border and illegal tunnels are crippling Gaza's economy. Protest in Gaza has been further circumscribed as social-media sites called for public dissent to be expressed. Yet Hamas leaders remained confident they would not face a Palestinian opposition with sufficient security control and political legitimacy in Gaza to oust them from power, as armed forces in Egypt had Morsi.
The prospects of Hamas's future cooptation within the Muslim Brotherhood, headquartered in Egypt, were, by 2013, all but dead. The debates that had opened up in December 2011 about Hamas's joining the wider Muslim Brotherhood organization and reconstituting itself as the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine had been seen as part of an emerging strategy within the external leadership wing to increase the reach of the movement and to benefit from the ascendance of this form of Islamism in the wake of the regional instability. Hence, at a meeting in Khartoum in December 2011, it was reported that Hamas had been encouraged to bid for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood (including membership in the regional Shura Council). This historic precedent would be acceptable: Hamas has always claimed its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood ("a link in the chain") and its branches in Mandate Palestine.28
It was argued by some Hamas leaders that, by becoming a formal part of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas could also undertake a transition from resistance (muqawama) to the social-reformist and political ideals of the Ikhwan. This would allow Hamas to take advantage of the regional and increasingly international legitimacy the Muslim Brotherhood movement enjoys without capitulating on important issues such as recognition of Israel. Further, some in the leadership indicated that this could have important implications in terms of both ending the diplomatic isolation of Hamas and strengthening its claim to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Yet Hamas did not step into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood. It remained autonomous and independent organizationally, though adhering selectively to the wider ideological positions of the Brotherhood. This autonomy may protect it, by degrees, from the worst of the fallout from the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood that followed the ouster of Morsi.
One outcome of the Arab Spring and regional realignment is Hamas's new relationship with Qatar. This was indicated in October 2012, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar at that time, became the first head of state to make an official visit to the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover in June 2007. The visit was a huge boost for the Hamas leadership and a perceived setback for Fatah, the PA and President Abbas. The emir's visit was important not only symbolically for Hamas's legitimacy, but economically, too: a major aid package was offered to the government in Gaza rather than to the PA government in the West Bank. The visit was also clearly designed by Qatar to boost its claims to regional leadership and its support for the Palestinian issue, especially the Hamas movement.29 Qatar's regional ambitions have been apparent since 2011, but the visit to Gaza, combined with the sheikh's personal intervention in the return of Hamas to Jordan (and meetings with King Abdullah II) for the first time since 1999, are evidence of a new epoch in Qatari foreign and regional policy. Qatar is reshaping the politics of the Gaza Strip and Hamas's future relations with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and hence the future settlement of the Palestinian issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Qatar has become a major source of financial assistance and development investment in the Gaza Strip, and this in turn is a significant boost to Hamas's claims to legitimacy at a time when it is governing Palestinians on an expired democratic mandate. Given the dire Palestinian economic crisis and the impact of Israel's siege on Gaza, the financial input of Qatar carries additional weight for Hamas. In September 2012, Qatar announced $254 million as the first tranche of a $500 million investment to rehabilitate Gaza's infrastructure and agriculture. Hamas sought to depict the Qatari funding as breaking Israel's siege of Gaza and improving the lives of ordinary people. Prime Minister Haniyeh said: "Today we declare victory against the blockade through this historic visit.... We say thank you Emir, thank you Qatar for this noble Arab stance.... Hail to the blood of martyrs that brought us to this point."30
The visit of the emir was also an opportunity for Qatar to criticize Hamas's rivals indirectly for failing to reconcile. The issue had become a bugbear for the Qataris in the wake of the spectacular fallout from their support for the Doha reconciliation agreement earlier in 2012. It can be argued that Qatar — by both the visit by the emir and the funding announcement — is assisting Hamas in its bid to outdo Fatah. While the PA was begging the Arab world, including the Saudis, for aid to help it deal with the worst financial crisis in its history, the Qatari beneficence to Hamas in Gaza was perceived as all but a slap in the face for President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. Qatari support for Hamas creates an opportunity to pursue its pacification strategies against the citizens of Gaza. It does not mean, however, that Hamas is having it all its own way. The assumption to the Qatari throne of Emir Hamad's son Tamim in June 2013 was a warning to Hamas that power shifts could alter its regional positioning. Hamas leaders contend that this is one reason the external leadership in now located in many locations around the Middle East, rather than one.
The Arab Spring has led many to ponder whether Hamas is reassessing its strategic position and whether it is willing or able to make strategic changes that might transform the movement. At the heart of this reassessment lies a challenge that, simply stated, is a choice between armed resistance or nonviolence and moderation.
As noted above, at the level of shaping political narrative and claims to legitimacy, Hamas, in contrast to Fatah, has engaged in a strategic repositioning that has led to new and enhanced relationships within the region. Hamas has also been able to exploit the changed security environment in which it has operated without yet having to substantively alter its principal ideological positions. Its core ideology related to issues such as the recognition of Israel, Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, the right of return, Jerusalem and the concept of resistance.
Thus far, Hamas has tried to maintain the appearance that both approaches are possible. As Hamas's deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad, contends, "I think neither arms nor negotiation only [will work].... The armed struggle is not the only option for Hamas."31 This can be interpreted either as pragmatism or as evidence of a Janus-faced crisis that has beset the leadership of the movement, with the two sides pulling in opposite strategic directions. The latter interpretation appeared to be reinforced in the wake of the re-election of Khaled Meshal (and his supporters) as head of the Political Bureau in April 2013. Gaza-based hardliners such as Mahmoud al-Zahar failed to get re-elected to this level of the leadership structure. Such crude depictions of the Hamas leadership are misleading. Meshal, for example, has given little public indication that he is willing to support a strategic repositioning on the core issues identified above. Unless Hamas's regional supporters create enough pressure for such change, it is highly unlikely that the leadership of the movement will follow.
Hamas leaders can thus be content with merely signaling the possibility of a change regarding armed resistance. It has committed itself to maintaining a ceasefire with Israel and acknowledging the place of "popular resistance" in Palestinian public discourse. This stance has been influenced by the broad regional swing in favor of nonviolent "popular reforms," as well as a localized disinclination among Gaza's citizens to endure further sustained Israeli military assaults on Palestinian territory. The military leadership of Hamas in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades remain suspicious of anything that smacks of a diminution (even indirect) of the option of "armed resistance," but they are respecting the decisions of their political leadership.
The Arab Spring divided the Hamas leadership: what was the right response to the challenge posed by the revolts? The disagreements were brought to a head in the leadership contest among Meshal,32 Zahar and Haniyeh. This disagreement also led to unprecedented tension within the leadership over issues such as Hamas's strategic direction, its relations with other Palestinian elements, regional realignments and repositioning. Yet, as Mahmoud Zahar asserts,
We are gaining [from the Arab Spring]. We lost no support at the popular level but lost those pro-Israeli rulers.… [W]e are going to gain not only in Egypt … This is dramatic, … and what happened is 100% for Hamas.… The Ikhwan are very very moderate and respectable.33
The external leaders of Hamas have, to a certain extent, witnessed the losses that have accompanied such gains, have naturally seen the opportunities they have presented in terms of the rise of the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement across the region, and have capitalized on them significantly. They understand the strategic implications of the move away from Syria and, by degrees, the dissipation of the tie to Iran and the extent to which, in the embrace of Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, such allies cannot be recovered. In the case of Iran, which had supported Hamas when it was isolated by the Arab world, the dissipation of support could be detrimental in terms of its future capability to engage in armed attacks on Israel.
Similarly, there is some consideration that a price for departing from this particular regional axis may well be levied on Hamas at some point in the future. Hamas's Ahmad Yousef acknowledged this when he said: "This is the difficult question. What is the price? Who will extract it? Qatar? Tehran? Saudi Arabia? Or Cairo? I don't know, but I do remember that the PLO paid the price in the Gulf War in 1990."34 Hence, in this context the external leadership has stood in the limelight and the other wings of the leadership have been absent, or absented themselves in protest.35 Even though Hamas tries hard to deny any internal conflict, as any organization does, it was unable to hide it during the internal elections. The reconciliation with Fatah was also one of the issues over which tensions occurred. Egypt has to be acknowledged for the significant role it has played in convincing the Hamas leadership to unify over reconciliation yet again. The political mandate that Meshal had previously enjoyed, and that the Gaza leadership attempted (albeit temporarily) to undermine, has been restored. Meshal's reelection was seen in some quarters as confirmation of the sway of external actors over the organization, though Hamas Political Bureau member Rawhi Mushtaha denied the existence of such influence and said that Meshal's reelection was vindication of the free will of the membership of the movement: "Hamas is democratic and united totally. While it is only natural to have differences of opinion, such as the one between the external and internal Gaza leadership, majority rule is always respected. Neither Qatar nor Egypt interfered."36
Hamas is at an important turning point in its organizational history. This turning point is not of its own making, but under the leadership of Khaled Meshal the organization has been able to exploit it. Just as Yasser Arafat had little option in the relocation of the PLO from Beirut to Tunis in 1982, Meshal was compelled to respond to regional events and their effects in Syria by relocating his movement. Hamas, like the PLO in the past, will no doubt survive the eventual strategic realignment that this will bring. Meshal will continue to lead and others will follow. Under his leadership, Hamas has moved closer to reconciliation with Fatah and has begun to shift its internal discourse with respect to the concessions on Hamas's control of Gaza that this will require. But such moves are not for Meshal alone. They take into consideration the goals of the movement and the pressures and influences it is now under from ascendant regional actors. Meshal has been able to remind Gaza's leaders of the larger goal ahead: the PLO and the future elections to the PLC. If Hamas wins, they will get to "keep" Gaza, gain control of the West Bank and lead the PLO. Hamas, however, will have to make painful compromises — not necessarily in terms of the two-state solution and the 1967 borders but, more fundamentally, with respect to Hamas's position on armed resistance. This poses a threat for its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, and stokes fear that Iran will arm its Islamist rivals, in particular the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In conclusion, the Hamas leadership has not undertaken the kind of strategic shift that either its supporters or its enemies desire. Instead, it is apparent that the beginning of an erosion of particular positions and attendant alliances is taking place as a result of the Arab Spring. To some extent, Hamas has demonstrated its pragmatism by reshaping its image and revising its narrative of resistance in response to the Arab Spring. For example, if the Arab Spring is interpreted as a demand for democracy, Hamas has deflected criticism of its democratic deficit in governing Gaza and has sought to control the narrative around internal democracy within the movement through its leadership-election process. Similarly, debate about a change of strategy regarding armed resistance against Israel has remained just that: a debate. What such a debate has demonstrated, however, is a difference of opinion among leaders of the movement that will have to be resolved. It is epitomized by the different positions of Political Bureau leader Meshal and Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, who on the one hand have both signaled that policy change is possible, and Mahmoud Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh, who on the other represent those within the movement who are not yet prepared for such strategic compromise or concession. It is an indication of which side is prevailing in this particular debate that Zahar failed to win reelection to the Political Bureau, while Meshal won a fourth-term endorsement.
The Arab Spring has significantly altered the Arab world, and Hamas has consequently faced growing pressures both within and outside the movement to reassess its ideological and symbolic foundations as well as its political stances and regional alliances. The rise and rapid fall of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has severely tested Hamas. The departure from Damascus and Meshal's position on the Assad regime has seen Hamas exiting the "Axis of Resistance" and hence becoming vulnerable to retaliation, wooed by new regional actors amid the vagaries of their foreign-policy agendas. The greatest test remains a domestic one, with popular demand for a shift in strategy that takes into account the Arab Spring, the toppling of some regimes, major political reforms in others and, finally, entrenched authoritarianism in still others. This is a test that, at present, Hamas has little incentive to take.
1 The author is grateful to Stephen Farrell, Nuha Musleh and Michael Pearson for their insights with this article.
2 Mohammed Awad, Hamas deputy prime minister, author interview, Gaza city, December 9, 2011.
3 Ismail Radwan, Hamas leader, author interview, Gaza city, February 13, 2012.
4 Khaled Meshal, "Political Thought and Strategies of Hamas in Light of the Arab Uprisings," AMEC.org, April 1, 2014.
5 See K. Al-Anani, "Islamist Parties Post-Arab Spring," Mediterranean Politics 17, no 3 (2012): 466-472.
6 See C. Jones and B. Milton-Edwards, "Missing the 'Devils' We Knew? Israel and Political Islam amid the Arab Awakening," International Affairs 89, no. 2 (March 2013): 399-417.
7 Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas founder, author interview, Gaza City, February 11, 2013.
8 Stephen Farrell, "Israel Reaches Deal with Hamas to Free Gilad Shalit," New York Times, October 6, 2011.
9 Ghazi Hamad, deputy minister of foreign affairs, author interview, Gaza City, February 11, 2013.
10 Nabil Shaath, head of PLO External Relations, author interview, Ramallah, February 14, 2012.
11 Mahmoud Al-Aloul, Fatah Central Committee member, author interview, Ramallah, February 14, 2012.
12 See Freedom House Report, Gaza Strip, 2011, http://www.refworld.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain?docid=504ef9859.
13 Anonymous, head of Palestinian Women's Society, author interview, Gaza City, November 5, 2012.
14 Anonymous, Gaza activist, author interview, Gaza City, November 5, 2012.
15 See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10736032 ; http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2013/04/02/women-group-slams-gaza-law-gender-segregation/QE0Kbry4Tg1IvDWIrFL4pM/story.html; http://www.pchrgaza.org/portal/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9357:pchr-condemns-iss-prevention-of-fatah-central-committee-member-from-travelling-via-beit-hanoun-crossing&catid=36:pchrpressreleases&Itemid=194; http://www.pchrgaza.org/portal/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9311:pchr-concerned-about-iss-ban-on-travel-by-journalists&catid=36:pchrpressreleases&Itemid=194; http://www.pchrgaza.org/portal/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9306:pchr-condemns-iss-ban-on-travel-by-trade-union-delegation&catid=36:pchrpressreleases&Itemid=194.
16 The 2005 Cairo agreement was not implemented but the current agreement allows for the formation of a body composed of all the factions to prepare for the reform of the PLO to enable Hamas membership. A PNC meeting in Amman is scheduled for the first time to include Hamas representatives and the PNC's composition in terms of Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories and the diaspora has already been agreed to. There will be provision for new PNC elections, which will allow for all the factions to compete for representation within the PLO.
17 See PCPSR Polls: (http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2012/p44efull.html#presidency) and JMCC (http://www.jmcc.org/documentsandmaps.aspx?id=861), which reveal drops in Palestinian support for Hamas.
18 See Lina Khatib, "Qatar's Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism," International Affairs 89, no. 2 (2013): 417-431.
19 Meshal, "Political Thought…," op. cit.
20 In the wake of the effective ousting of the external leadership of Hamas from the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 1999, it relocated, in part, to the Syrian capital.
21 See Erik Mohns and Andre Bank, "Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?" Middle East Policy (2012): 25-35. The resistance axis included Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hizballah.
22 Fares Akram, "In Break, Hamas Supports Syrian Opposition," New York Times, February 24, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/world/middleeast/hamas-leader-supports-syrian-opposition.html?_r=0.
23 Ahmad Yousef, director, House of Wisdom; author interview, Gaza City, February 13, 2012.
24 Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas leader, author interview, Gaza City, July 9, 2012.
25 Ismail Haniyeh, statement, 9 July 2012.
26 Ayman Daragmeh, Change and Reform PLC member, author interview, Ramallah, July 12, 2012.
28 See B. Milton-Edwards and S. Farrell, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Polity, 2010); and B. Milton-Edwards, Islamic Politics in Palestine (I.B. Tauris, 1996).
29 See Michael Stephens, "Shuttle Diplomacy: Qatar Playing Politics in Palestine," Open Democracy, October 29, 2012, http://www.opendemocracy.net/michael-stephens/shuttle-diplomacy-qatar-playing-politics-in-palestine.
30 See http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/13068, October 23, 2012.
31 Ghazi Hamad, deputy minister of foreign affairs, author interview, Gaza City, February 11, 2013.
32 In April 2013, Hamas announced the re-election of Meshal as head of the Political Bureau.
33 Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas leader, author interview, Gaza City, December 8, 2011.
34 Ahmad Yousef, director, House of Wisdom, author interview, Gaza City, February 13, 2012.
35 This was the case with the signing of the Doha agreement in Qatar in January 2012, when Haniyeh and Zahar allegedly boycotted the ceremony because they were piqued that Meshal had done a deal with Abbas without their explicit consent and approval.
36 Rawhi Mushtaha, Hamas Political Bureau member, author interview, Gaza City, April 30, 2013.
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