March 14, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: Mashal’s Choice and the Division of Hamas
As of mid-March 2012, the singular question on the minds of keen Hamas-watchers is this: Will the group splinter into two factions, with one in Gaza and the other in the West Bank and beyond? What once might have be a remote possibility is now a viable near-term scenario driven by several still-unfolding events. The ongoing Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have generated calls for an escalation by the Gaza wing of Hamas against Israeli forces while, at the same time, the relocation out of Syria by other elements of the group has negatively impacted support from both that country and Iran, both of which have been prime allies with substantial influence over Hamas operations.
Khalid Mishal, officially head of Hamas's political bureau, is now living in Qatar following his exodus from Syria. Along with other leaders outside Gaza, he is facing the choice of cementing the split between the Gaza-based faction, led by Mahmud al-Zahar and Ismail Haniyah, and Hamas in the West Bank and beyond, or to reverse the recent progress his group has made in increasingly aligning itself with Fatah and moderate Arab nations such as Qatar.
These choices are explored below, but it appears from initial analysis that Mishal intends to press ahead with his new approach, even at the risk of creating a major division within his group. The contrast between recent public statements from the Meshal and Gaza factions of Hamas on issues such as the rapprochement with Fatah, whether Hamas would militarily support Iran in the event of an attack by Israel or the West, and the latest calls for escalation with Israel are such that it is now hard to reconcile them into a coherent and consistent approach to Palestinian resistance.
Coincidentally, reports indicate that Hamas in Gaza has launched a new militant group, called Humat al Aqsa ("al-Aqsa Protectors") to launch attacks against Israel. The group is reportedly led by a senior Hamas leader, Fathi Hammad (who has the title of "Interior Minister" in the Hamas lead Palestenian government based in Gaza).
Policy makers should be alert for opportunities to further fold Mishal's faction into the mainstream, as it still retains sizable support in the region, while further marginalizing those led by Zahar and Haniyah.
Mishal is facing a situation he has not seen since his 1999 expulsion from Jordan: No longer can he depend on wholesale support from his host country in terms of inflammatory rhetoric or intransigence when it comes to Fatah and Israel. In effect, Mishal now has a delima: a moderate host nation with a strong vested interest in seeing its diplomatic efforts succeed in the region; and a base of popular and organizational support that is torn between conflict and compromise.
The current conflict ? where rockets launched into Israel by Gaza-based militants have been met with punishing Israeli airstrikes ? might eventually die down. Should it continue, Mishal will face significant internal pressure to publicly align himself and his faction with the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the newly formed Humat al-Aqsa (al-Aqsa Protectors), both of which are led by Hamas officials in Gaza.
Such an alignment would run counter to Hamas' de facto truce on firing missiles from Gaza into Israel (Israeli officials acknowledge Hamas has maintained its three-year moratorium on such launches even while it holds the group responsible for other militant groups that, according to Israel, act in its stead.) If Mishal publicly calls for more than "self-defense" in terms of military action against Israel, it would be inconsistent with his recent stated preference for non-violent resistance similar to the Arab Spring. Such statements and actions would likely generate a short-term boost in popular support but would also strain his relationship with Qatar, which is committed to increasing its role as an effective regional peace broker. Qatar is rapidly becoming a center of regional diplomacy and influence, and if Mishal wants to stay there, he will have to tread lightly.
Another complicating issue is Hamas' conflicting public statements as to whether it would support Iran if that country were attacked by Israel over concerns relating to the Iranian nuclear program. After first stating Hamas was "not part of any political axis...if Israel attacks us we will respond...if they don't, we will not get involved in any other regional conflict," al-Zahar then denied these comments and stated "retaliation with utmost power is the position of Hamas with regard to a Zionist war on Iran." Relations between Iran and Hamas are strained due to the group's public denouncement of the Syrian regime's armed crack down on demonstrators, a situation that led to Mishal and his deputies to decamp Damascus for Qatar and Jordan. Again, Mishal will have to carefully manage a complex array of issues and challenges in a manner the will not place him too far out in front of moderate arab opinion (one that is not in favor of a nuclear Iran).
- Mishal will attempt to delicately straddle the choices of moderation or confrontation, trying to minimize internal Hamas differences by stressing Palestinian unity. But the challenge of maintaining two conflicting support bases Arab moderate governments on one side and the Gaza faction that sees itself as the on-the-ground resistance on the other ? is likely to prove impossible.
- If effectively supported/managed by moderate Arab states, Mishal will likely continue his move away from the relatively more extremist Gaza faction. However, should Mishal not see sufficient advantages in such a stance, he will almost certainly pivot back to the hardline Gaza faction.
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