July 9, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Hamas Moves Amidst New Regional Politics
While the scene appears tragically familiar—Hamas launching rockets and Israel conducting airstrikes—the geopolitical backdrop against which this recent escalation is playing out is unfamiliar.
Hamas, for the first time, is fighting Israel not only without strong backing from its usual patrons Syria and Iran, with whom Hamas has strained relations due to its early support for the removal of the Assad regime. It is also fighting Israel without the popular support of its heretofore biggest regional backers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to overstate how different the political environment is now than in 2012, and certainly 2008, the last two times Hamas engaged in serious conflict with Israel. How the region responds beyond the obligatory calls to end the violence on both sides will provide a valuable insight into possible new geopolitical trends.
One of the constants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the decades has been strong popular support among Arab countries, driven by state-run media, for whatever group was seen as fighting the Israelis, which in the last decade or so has been primarily Hamas. But the constants have changed, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt trying to purge the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from the region, and Hamas is closely affiliated with MB. There is immense regional government and media pressure against all things MB and it will be interesting to see how these governments try to separate Hamas from the issue so as to maintain credibility and consistency with popular support while not helping Hamas regain favor.
In addition to attacking Israel while fighting the ebbing tide of support for the MB and affiliates, Hamas is dealing with a region spooked by the thought of uncontrollable violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) that have strayed far beyond useful levers of influence. Tacit tolerance for violence, even in the cause of Palestine, is at a low point as governments try to figure out how to control the uncontrollable, and maintain the status quo. The Arab Spring and now the IS Summer have Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi concerned, and whatever upside Hamas activity brings them doesn’t make up for the downside.
Without regional support, Hamas will have to once again align closer to Iran, from whom it had strayed over not only the Syrian issue but also Hamas’ fear of being tied too closely to a Shi’a power reviled across the Sunni heartland. Fundraising from the region has taken a huge hit, as those governments no longer look the other way. Iran is the only significant source of weapons for the group. Hamas will still garner popular support, especially on Twitter and Facebook, where government control is less meaningful—support that will grow if the conflict intensifies. The question is how state media covers the issue and if it highlights or sidelines Hamas’ role in what is still an extremely emotional and volatile issue. Iran’s part in the preeminent Arab issue only complicates the situation.
Iranian military support is evident from the rockets that are nearly reaching Tel Aviv. The military wing of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have maintained a close relationship with both Iran and Hizballah even as the political wing of Hamas moved away. This has ensured Hamas’ rocket capability will be a significant concern for Israel even after targeted airstrikes. Like with Hizballah’s 2006 battles with Israel, Iranian military support could prove significant.
With Shi’a Hizballah and MB-tainted Hamas as the two main players in the armed opposition to Israel, Arab countries are finding themselves in the awkward position of supporting a cause with no proxy. The Palestinian issue has been a source of domestic leverage for years and now the leverage has shifted as the proxy Hamas has been ostracized.
This evolving dynamic—where the regional Arab powers are more worried about internal stability than supporting external instability—along with a growing realization that a new approach is needed for the cancerous Syrian civil war, might prompt the region to support moderates expressly at the expense of extremists. At the very least, it is a new possibility for a tragically moribund issue in need of one. Keeping conflict from turning into conflagration while marginalizing the extremists that seek it can prove to be an effective approach. This possibility might drive all sides to avoid further escalation.
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