The upheavals sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa since the end of 2010 have left their mark on the region. Although the Palestinian political scene appears to have weathered the storm, it has not remained unaffected.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group and ruler of the Gaza Strip, has been particularly touched by these regional changes. This article seeks to shed light on the internal dynamics and struggles faced by Hamas from the group’s inception to the current day.
Hamas and Fatah – the Crisis Begins
Hamas was established in 1987 as a resistance movement to liberate Palestine from Israeli rule. Its roots go back to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization, which had been active in the Gaza Strip since the 1950s.
Hamas played a role in the first (1987-1993) and second intifada (2000-2005), while maintaining a strong stance against the Oslo Peace Agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.
For the first two decades of its existence, Hamas remained committed to a strategy of resistance. Its commitment to this approach was a central reason behind Israel’s departure from Gaza in 2005 and its defeat in the 2008-2009 bombardment of the Strip.
Beginning with the Palestinian legislative election of January 2006, Hamas has, however, slowly transformed from a resistance movement to a political party. Running as the “List of Change and Reform,” Hamas won a majority of seats, obtaining 42.9% of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats. The international community and Israel responded by boycotting and embargoing the Hamas-led government, and suspending all foreign aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The elections also marked the beginning of rising tension between Hamas and Fatah, the political party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the parliamentary elections, Fatah began a policy of abduction and assassination against Hamas officials. Hamas responded in kind. By December 15, 2006, President Abbas had called for a new round of parliamentary elections, a move that Hamas condemned as illegal.
Regional governments stepped in to resolve the crisis. This led to the 2007 Mecca Agreement between Hamas and Fatah to establish a united national government. The Agreement soon came unraveled leading to the events of June 2007, when Hamas forces launched a military offensive to prevent an attempted Fatah coup in the Gaza Strip. Although led by notorious Fatah strongman Mohammad Dahlan, the coup was planned and encouraged by the United States, Israel, and certain Arab governments.
As a result, the Palestinian territories became both politically and geographically divided, with the Gaza Strip under the authority of Hamas and the West Bank under the control of Fatah.
Hamas’ Internal Structure
Elections for Hamas’ political bureau and other political echelons of the movement usually occur every four years. The political bureau is Hamas’ executive power and is charged with running the majlis el shura’s (Consultative Council) strategy, which determines the political orientation of the organization. While the political bureau is elected by the majlis el shura, the overall power of the majlis is undermined by the geographic dispersal of the Hamas leadership and the relative political and financial autonomy of the external leadership, which is in charge of collecting funds for the movement. The ability to control and distribute funds gives the external leadership de facto financial power and oversight over the organization.
Khaled Meshaal is considered the head of Hamas’ external leadership and represents the group at meetings with foreign governments and other parties throughout the world. He is not, however, the head of the group’s political bureau. As a security measure to prevent Israeli assassination attempts, the name of the president of the political bureau is kept secret. This secrecy has its origins in the Israeli assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi in April 17, 2004, three weeks after he succeeded as the movement’s president following the death of Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by the Israelis on March 22, 2004.
Today, Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip, led by Ismael Haniyeh, and the group’s external leadership, led by Meshaal, are the movement’s two most important constituencies. Due to suppression and repression by Israel and its collaborators within the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces, Hamas supporters in the West Bank have been marginalized. The same fate has come to the movement’s supporters inside Israeli prisons, as the number of detainees has decreased since 2011 when 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for Israeli hostage Sergeant Gilad Shalit.
Hamas: Internal Struggles?
The Hamas movement’s survival depends heavily on unity and cohesion. At the same time, the group’s various constituencies frequently think and act independently. Recent changes in the region have brought to the surface and exacerbated the internal issues and cracks within the movement’s two main constituencies.
Nevertheless, there are several important issues for which there is widespread agreement within the movement. Hamas’ relationship with the international community is one of these central sources of agreement. Various members of the movement have repeatedly declared their desire to have Hamas receive recognition from the international community.
At a May 2011 ceremony in honor of the reconciliation agreement signed by Hamas and Fatah, Meshaal declared that Hamas wanted the “establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital.” Such a state would fall within the June 1967 lines, which the international community and the PA support as the basis for negotiations.
Hamas member and former advisor to Ismael Haniyeh, Dr Ahmed Youssef, has often reached out to the international community on the movement’s behalf. Through Youssef, the Gaza leadership has expressed its support for the idea of a Houdna (truce) with Israel lasting 20 years in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian State within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In the same vein, the movement largely supports Hamas’ move away from resistance toward more political strategies. At times, Hamas leaders in Gaza have criticized Meshaal’s use of the term ‘popular resistance,’ interpreting his words as a complete rejection of violence. While the group’s external leadership has denied this accusation, Hamas’ rejection of armed resistance remains undeniable.
In fact, the movement has virtually halted all forms of military resistance toward Israel and the occupation since its takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas has even worked to prevent military resistance from emerging within the Strip, arresting any groups attempting to launch rockets on Israel. During the last Israeli attack against Gaza in March 2012, it was Islamic Jihad, the left-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other small groups that launched rockets against Israel in response to the bombings. Hamas refrained from taking military action.
Hamas has also taken steps to curb peaceful protests inside Gaza, which are seen as a threat to the movement. For example, on March 30 2012, Hamas security services cracked down on a peaceful protest marking Land Day. Several people were injured and many others were arrested. In March of last year, Hamas security forces and thugs attacked activists and protesters from the March 15th youth movement, who were demanding an end to divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas later accused the movement of destabilizing the Gaza Strip and receiving foreign funding, in other to undermine the group’s work.
The real struggle and source of conflict within Hamas revolves around internal decision-making processes. These disagreements began with the signing of the May 2011 Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation Agreement, and peaked in February 2012 with the signing of the new reconciliation agreement in Doha by Meshaal and President Abbas.
Although based on the May 2011 agreement, the Doha Agreement calls for a second meeting of the temporary committee of the PLO to reform its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council, as well as the initiation of work by the Central Elections Committee (CEC) in preparation for legislative and presidential elections, and the formation of a government of independent technocrats, led by Abbas. Under the Agreement, Abbas would become PA prime minister, in addition to serving as PA president, chairman of the PLO, and leader of Fatah.
The Gaza leadership has voiced its opposition to various parts of the Doha Agreement. The negotiations took place in the form of personalized talks between Abbas and Meshaal. This was particularly irksome for Hamas officials in Gaza, who wanted their interests taken into account. Following the group’s routine patterns for internal conflict, prominent leaders in Gaza expressed reservations and raised certain demands as the external leadership pursued reconciliation with Fatah.
Following a meeting between Hamas officials in Cairo on February 22, 2012, the Gaza leadership made additional demands with regard to the Doha Agreement. While officially declaring its willingness to implement the Agreement, the Gaza leadership remained unwilling to cede power in the Strip. It asked to retain control over the interior ministry, which oversees the Hamas security services and maintains its structure, and requested the naming of a Gaza-based deputy for Abbas. The Gaza leadership also demanded that Abbas’ appointment as prime minister be conditioned on a vote of confidence from the Palestinian parliament. Notably, the leadership did not take issue with Abbas’ double-status as Prime Minister and President of the PA, which is unconstitutional under Palestinian Law.
In early July 2012, in a new sign of Gazan hostility toward the reconciliation agreement, the Hamas leadership in the Strip suspended the CEC’s work the day before it was to begin registering voters. The move has put a hold on any progress toward unity.
Hamas: Control and Resilience in the Gaza Strip
The Israeli government’s illegal siege against the Gaza Strip has had catastrophic human, social, and economic consequences. It has isolated this small tract of land from the rest of the world. It has deprived Gaza’s roughly 1.6 million inhabitants of the most basic commodities, including food, medicine, fuel, and desperately-needed building materials.
While the initial objective of the illegal siege was to weaken Hamas, it has actually empowered the movement. In fact, the group’s Gaza leadership has considerably increased its influence over the past few years because of the power it wields in the Strip.
Hamas dominates the Gaza Strip politically, socially, and economically. The powerful and well-armed Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, has become a security service agency that ensures Hamas’ control over the territory and helps the movement extend its power to nearly all sectors of society.
Currently exceeding 1200 in number, tunnels between Gaza and Egypt have been used to resist the illegal siege and provide the population with a variety of vital products. The tunnel economy has also been a source of domestic revenue for Hamas, helping to further its political and socio-economic power. In addition to the financial assistance provided by its allies, Hamas has imposed taxes on goods entering Gaza through the tunnels, thereby raising enormous amounts of money.