BICOM Analysis: Is Hamas changing?

[updated from original version published on 18 January 2012]

Key points

  • The recent announcement that Khaled Meshaal does not wish to stand again for the leadership of Hamas’s political bureau follows growing internal tensions within the movement.
  • Another development that highlights the current fluidity of Hamas’s internal politics are the talks between Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership, under Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, over the possibility of a merger.
  • The Arab Spring has created both opportunities and threats for Hamas. Relations with its former backers – Syria and Iran – have become strained, but changes in Egypt have opened up opportunities to transform the relationship between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and Egypt.
  • Recent statements by Meshaal calling for a halt to violence against Israel reflect the interests of Hamas’s ‘external’ leadership to show a more pragmatic face, but do not indicate a decisive shift of the movement to non-violence.
  • Changes in the region have increased the relative influence of the movement’s Gaza-based ‘internal’ leadership, with senior figures in Gaza openly challenging Meshaal’s call for a halt to violence and explicitly reaffirming their commitment to ‘liberating’ all of Palestine through ‘armed struggle’.
  • Underneath the slow-moving unity process, the rivalry between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank also remains strong. In this context, European countries are likely to continue to maintain their non-contact policy with Hamas.

Introduction: Is Hamas at a crossroads?

The recent announcement from Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that he will not stand again for the position of political bureau chief follows growing internal tensions within the movement. Meshaal’s announcement has come as a surprise, and the reasons are unclear. Some speculate that he wants to stand for the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the internationally-recognised representative of the Palestinian people, but there is no contradiction between that and remaining the political head of Hamas. The growing disagreements between himself and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, over the process of forming a unity agreement with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, appear to be a more credible explanation, but the full picture has yet to emerge.

Another development that highlights the current fluidity of Hamas’s internal politics are the talks between Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership, under Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to explore the possibility of a merger. On the face of it, the merger looks unlikely, as the two groups have long been rivals, and there are significant gaps between their positions. PIJ is primarily a militant organisation which has avoided participation in PA elections and is closely tied, financially and ideologically, to Iran. It has been growing in military strength over the last year and has posed an increasing challenge to Hamas’s authority in Gaza. It is understandable that Hamas’s Gaza leadership would want to bring PIJ under its control, but it seems unlikely that Hamas would want to share power, or alternatively that PIJ would accept Hamas’s authority.

These two recent developments follow growing rifts between Hamas’s external and internal leaderships, who have been sending conflicting messages about their attitudes to violence. Meshaal has called on the movement not to engage in violence against Israel. He told Al Jazeera on 26 December 2011 that ‘all forms of resistance, especially armed resistance [i.e. the path of terrorism], are our right, but now, during the Arab Spring, we prefer the popular resistance and to focus instead on a unified strategy of popular resistance.’ However, this contrasts markedly with recent public statements by Hamas’s internal leadership in Gaza.

Addressing a crowd in Gaza on 14 December, Haniyeh said, ‘Today, we say, in a clear and unambiguous fashion: the armed resistance and armed struggle are our strategic choice and our path to liberate the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and to drive the usurping invaders out of the blessed land of Palestine.’ He added, ‘The fact that Hamas, at one stage or another, accepts the goal of gradual liberation – of Gaza, of the West Bank, or of Jerusalem – is not at the expense of our strategic vision with regard to the land of Palestine.’

What explains this apparent discord within the movement, what can be expected of it in the coming months and how should European governments react?

What has been the impact of the Arab Spring on Hamas?

The Arab Spring has created both threats and opportunities for Hamas. The primary threat has been the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a key patron of Hamas which hosts its political bureau in Damascus. This situation caught Hamas between its loyalty to Assad and its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose spiritual leader, Sheikh Yussuf Al Qaradawi, has openly backed the uprising against Assad. The conflict in Syria is widely seen in the Arab world as a sectarian confrontation in which a majority Sunni population is being suppressed by a non-Sunni, Alawite minority. Unlike Hezbollah, a Shia organisation, it is extremely difficult for Hamas to identify with Assad in this context. As a result of Hamas’s failure to identify with Assad, Iran, which has a strategic alliance with the Assad regime, has reportedly cut back its financial support to Hamas. This has contributed to financial strain on the organisation, which was already suffering from a decline in revenue from smuggling after Israel relaxed many of its restrictions on imports to Gaza.

Another consequence of the Arab Spring was to re-energise Palestinian society to demand political unity between the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank. This prompted Hamas to be more conciliatory on the issue of Palestinian unity, to be more ready to accept Egyptian intervention in Palestinian affairs and to seek ways to improve its standing in Palestinian public opinion. These factors partly explain the sudden conclusion of the deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last October.

At the same time, the change of regime in Egypt, and rise of Islamist political forces in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, has created opportunities for Hamas. The movement suddenly faces the possibility of Egypt being politically dominated by Islamist parties. The Hamas regime in Gaza has already accrued concrete benefits from the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. A new, long-term route out of Gaza’s international isolation and economic distress has been opened, with the Rafah border crossing now partially open for people to cross between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas leaders are dreaming of a transformation in Gaza that would be made possible by the development of a fully open border with Egypt complete with free trade zones. The support of the Turkish government has also helped to improve Hamas’s position.

However, some of the benefits of the change in Egypt have been to the benefit of Hamas’s rivals in Gaza. The destabilisation in the Sinai Peninsula has led to an upsurge in smuggling, but the weapons have helped PIJ to develop an arsenal that rivals that of Hamas. The chaos in the Sinai has also created a new opportunity for groups in Gaza with a global jihadi ideology to link up with like-minded groups in the Sinai and use it as a base to attack Israeli and Egyptian targets. The ability of Hamas to control the activities of smaller armed groups in Gaza has been somewhat reduced.

How is Hamas responding?

Hamas’s external leadership has responded to the changes in the region by shifting the balance of external relations, and by engaging with greater seriousness with proposals for Palestinian unity.

Hamas’s external leadership needs a new home for its political bureau. Individual operatives have been relocating from Damascus to locations including Lebanon, Egypt and Qatar, and Hamas has been trying with Qatari support to rebuild its relationship with Jordan, which expelled Meshaal in 1999. But the movement has yet to fix on a suitable and willing centre for its political operations.

Meshaal also responded by accelerating the stop-start reconciliation process with the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. This process serves several purposes for Hamas. It ingratiates the movement with Egypt, which is promoting the reconciliation; it helps Hamas gain international legitimacy, it builds their support on the Palestinian street and it paves the way for Hamas to enter and potentially dominate the PLO. Meshaal’s call for a halt to violence against Israel makes advancing the unity agreement with Fatah possible, and meets the wishes of the interim military regime in Cairo. At the end of December, Meshaal, along with leaders of various other Palestinian factions including PIJ, participated in the first meeting of a new, temporary PLO executive.

One of the planned outcomes of a unity agreement would be setting a date for overdue Palestinian elections. With Abbas saying he will not run, and given the success of Islamist parties throughout the region, Hamas may see this as an opportunity to claim victory. However, elections also come with risks. Having trailed behind Fatah in the polls for several years, Hamas cannot be sure of winning. It is hard to imagine the Hamas leadership in Gaza allowing a genuine democratic process to take place that could lead to them relinquishing their hard-won hold on Gaza. Winning the presidency could also trigger a funding crisis for the PA, due to the predicament faced by the United States and the European Union in funding a government led by a designated terrorist organisation. Hamas has not yet decided if it will contest the presidency. The uncertainty has only grown with speculation that having announced his intention to step down as political leader of Hamas, Meshaal may still covet the leadership of the PLO. It is far from clear how elections for a new PLO leadership, which involve the Palestinian diaspora as well as the populations in Gaza and the West Bank, would be organised.

Not all Hamas leaders within Gaza have been enthusiastic about the unity deal or the call to halt the violence. In reality, apart from an escalation in April 2011 during which Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus killing one, Hamas forces in Gaza have largely kept to an unofficial ceasefire since the end of Operation Cast Lead. They have also generally enforced the ceasefire with smaller factions. However, Hamas’s internal leadership was reportedly angered that Meshaal’s pronouncements came without consultation. Senior Gazan Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar has been scornful of the attempts at reconciliation with Fatah and objected in principle to the call for popular resistance, which he said was not relevant in Gaza as it is no longer under occupation. Ahmed Jaabri, leader of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, is also believed to be increasingly independent from Hamas’s external leadership, and was a key figure determining the outcome of the Shalit deal.

The responses within Gaza indicate a shift in power towards the internal leadership. Another sign is the recent regional tour conducted by Haniyeh, which raised his international profile. The move by the internal leadership to take the lead by launching merger talks with PIJ is a further indication of the internal leadership’s independence.

However, Meshaal’s intended resignation does not necessarily mean the dominance of the movement by its internal leadership. Meshaal may yet be persuaded to stay on, and even if he does not, his deputy Abu Marzouk may take on the role, having held the top job for a spell in the 1990s.

What does Hamas really want?

With its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is built on an ideology of hostility to the West, hatred of Jews and absolute rejection of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East.[1] However, Hamas has long struggled to balance this Islamist ideology with the practical needs of the Palestinian people it seeks to represent, leading at times to more pragmatic-sounding positions.

In the context of the Arab Spring, Islamists in a number of Arab states have been forced to face choices between their ideological positions and pragmatic demands of political leadership. This is very apparent in Egypt, where Islamists are clearly struggling to articulate coherent positions on how to relate to Israel. Hamas will no doubt be watching these developments and considering the implications for its own future strategy.

Whilst it cannot be assumed that Hamas could never in future reconcile its Islamist ideology with a permanent renunciation of violence and acceptance of Israel, there is no sign as yet that the underlying position of the movement has changed. Its short-term goals remain focused on securing its ability to rule in Gaza, reversing the clampdown on its activities at the hands of the PA in the West Bank, assuming leadership of the Palestinian national movement and gaining international legitimacy, without giving up on its core ideological principles.

In terms of its attitude to violence, Hamas was forced into ceasing rocket attacks on Israel three years ago by the heavy military setback it suffered in Operation Cast Lead. Avoiding a military escalation with Israel continues to serve Hamas’s interests in the short run. But Hamas has by no means renounced violence on a permanent basis, and has rebuilt its arsenal to a stronger position than during Operation Cast Lead. Following an increase in rocket attacks by smaller factions in Gaza during 2011, Israel is concerned that its deterrence has diminished and is threatening a significant new operation in Gaza. Given this potential for escalation, the possibility of Hamas being drawn into a major confrontation with Israel remains distinct.

Similarly, Meshaal’s statements that he is willing to accept a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank is not equivalent to recognition of Israel or of previous agreements. Hamas has articulated a position since the late 1990s that it would offer a hudna, or extended ceasefire, in return for the complete Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders, the evacuation of all settlements and the return of all refugees. Hamas has apparently given little serious thought to what this might involve in practice, or to significant considerations in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations such as land swaps. The conditions as they stand are clearly non-viable even in a conflict-ending agreement, never mind in return for nothing more than a long-term ceasefire.

What are the West’s considerations in relating to Hamas?

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Western governments are reassessing their relationships with Islamist parties as they rise to positions of political power in a number of countries. However, whilst there have been persistent calls by some in the West to engage openly with Hamas, particularly following its election victory in 2006, neither the US nor any key European players appear to be considering this at present. Given that there is no clear sign as yet of a significant change in Hamas, to drop the official non-contact policy at this stage would indeed be premature.

Hamas’s avoidance of violent confrontation is a positive development in the short term. But the vocal dissent to this policy from the movement’s Gaza-based leadership makes it impossible to interpret the move as a decisive shift towards renunciation of terrorism, or as a willingness to accept a conflict-ending agreement with Israel. It is also impossible to ignore those Hamas leaders continuing to call, in effect, for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel, as well as Hamas preachers broadcast on Hamas television who incite genocide against the Jews.

Furthermore, participation in elections cannot be equated with acceptance of the rules of the democratic game. It is only four and a half years since Hamas-armed forces ousted their rivals from Fatah and expelled them from Gaza in a bloody coup, bringing an end to a short-lived unity government. Since then, Hamas has used the power it gained, initially through elections, to strengthen its own faction’s armed forces and silence political opposition in Gaza.

Hamas’s Gaza-based leadership also continues to undermine those Palestinians who are prepared in principle to reach a conflict-ending agreement with Israel. Haniyeh dismissed the recent renewal of direct contacts between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Amman as a ‘futile gesture which will lead nowhere.’ Granting international endorsement to Hamas now, without Hamas accepting the Quartet conditions – renunciation of violence, acceptance of previous agreements and recognition of Israel – would provide a further opportunity for Hamas to undermine the Palestinian leadership of Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This would be particularly damaging at the present time, when Fatah and Hamas may be about to face off in elections.

At the same time, neither Israel nor the West can escape the fact that Hamas’s rule in Gaza is a reality that is not likely to change in the near future. The challenge there remains to increase the ability of ordinary Gazans to live normally, whilst preventing Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza from acquiring both weapons and undue international legitimacy.


Hamas has undergone changes as a result of the Arab Spring, both in terms of its diplomatic orientation in the region and its internal balance of power. Its external leadership in particular, under the leadership of Khaled Meshaal, has shown a more pragmatic face to respond to the dilemmas posed by the uprising in Syria, the challenge to its own domestic legitimacy and to take advantage of the rise of Islamist forces in Egypt and elsewhere. However, the more moderate noises coming from Meshaal have been contradicted by members of Hamas’s internal leadership, and do not yet indicate a critical shift in the position of the movement. The reasons and consequences of Meshaal’s plan to resign and the merger talks with PIJ are as yet unclear. However, underneath the slow-moving unity process, the rivalry between Hamas and the PA remains strong. Given the lack of clarity about Hamas’s direction, and the premium placed on supporting Abbas and Fayyad, European countries are likely to continue to keep their distance.

[1] Nettler, R. L., Past Trials and Present Tribulations: A Muslim Fundamentalist‘s View of the Jews (Oxford Pergamon, 1987); Muhammad, M., “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 22, no. 4 (1993).