The Mainstreaming of Hamas Continues as Palestinian Unity Gains Steam

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (R) sit on either side of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani during a meeting to sign an agreement in Doha, Feb 6, 2012.

One of the least-noticed consequences of the Arab Spring might be called the “mainstreaming of Hamas.”  The chief of the Palestinian party and militia, which the West knows chiefly for its suicide attacks on Israel, has declared repeatedly that it has decided to set aside violent resistance and, in the spirit of the Arab Spring, concentrate on demonstrations and other nonviolent methods.  Nominally committed to the eradication of the Jewish State, Hamas now supports a negotiated peace agreement based on 1967 borders and – without renouncing the option to pick up arms in the future – vows to give Palestinian moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas the running room to see what talks can produce, according to Khaled Mashaal, chief of the group’s political office.

Popular protests pack “the power of a tsunami,” Mashaal said just before Christmas in Cairo, where he was meeting with the leaders other Palestinian factions under the guiding hand of Egypt. “Now we have a common ground that we can work on, the popular resistance, which represents the power of people.”

It was a remarkable statement from a group that has embodied armed resistance against Israel. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a respected East Jerusalem analyst who speaks with Mashaal, says Hamas is falling into line both with the spirit of the Arab Awakening, as he prefers to call it, and with the desires of Egypt’s new government, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement Hamas grew out of.

“You are seeing a new chapter of political Islam. I call it reformist,” says Abdul Hadi, whose think tank is the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, or PASSIA. “This wave of reformists are talking about a civil state, not a religious state. They’re talking about democracy. They’re talking about sharing power….

“Mashaal is for the Arab Awakening, for reformist political Islam, for sharing power and for playing the game to get recognition from the Americans and Europeans.”

That analysis got a boost Monday morning from reports out of Qatar that Hamas has agreed that Abbas himself should head a unified Palestinian government that will run both the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending elections promised for this summer.  Abbas would replace Salam Fayyad as prime minister, in what is supposed to be a placeholder government of technocrats.

What to make of all this? Start with the people in the streets.  When crowds in Tahrir Square toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Palestinian faction led by Abbas lost its main patron.  Mubarak strongly favored Abbas’ secular Fatah party, and as an enemy of political Islam kept a tight rein on Hamas activists in the adjacent Gaza Strip, which they governed since kicking Fatah out in 2007.  Then the Arab uprisings cost Hamas a vital ally:  Until recently, Mashaal lived in Damascus, but Hamas is moving its headquarters out of Syria rather than side with President Bashar Assad against his population.  Analysts in Gaza say Iran last year slowed or even stopped its subsidies to Hamas as punishment for not backing Assad.  Bottom line:  both factions lost their main state supporters just as their own people pried themselves from Arab satellite news to insist that they be heard, too.

What Palestinians demanded was that Fatah and Hamas bury their differences and form a united front against the Israeli occupation.  This the factions promptly agreed to do, in a series of meetings held – not by accident – in Egypt.  The new government emerging in Cairo may be dominated by Islamists, but it has pushed both sides to make up and adopt the non-violent strategy against Israel, complete with negotiations.

“Exactly,” says Mahmoud Musleh, a Palestinian lawmaker elected on the Hamas ticket, with an emphatic nod.

The Egyptians have their reasons for encouraging quiet. Chief among them is the need to concentrate on pressing domestic matters for a while. “They don’t want Gaza to be an independent entity, and they don’t want Sinai to be a jungle of nameless violent Islamists,” says Abdul Hadi.

The change also suits Hamas’ immediate needs.  This is a party that could use a fresh start.  Palestinian public opinion polls show Hamas is deeply unpopular with voters in Gaza. On the West Bank, its leaders shuttle between jail and internal exile: Of six lawmakers elected to the Palestinian legislature on the Hamas ticket, and sharing an office in Ramallah, Mahmoud Musleh and Ahmad Abed Elazeez Mubarak were the only two not in Israeli jails last week.

Announcing the reconciliation helped Hamas’ public image, as did the release of prisoners it brokered with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.  But as Randy Newman says, it’s money that matters.  The Palestinian economy runs on dollars and Euros sent from donor countries.  That cash is funneled into the West Bank, where Abbas and  prime minister Fayyad are building the institutions of an independent state, and supposedly showing the payoff for keeping the peace.  But a goodly portion of those millions also flow into Gaza, because some 70,0000 idled civil servants who remain on the Palestinian Authority payroll inside Gaza even after Hamas took over and told them to stay home. That flow of dollars is crucial for Gaza.

The challenge is to keep the money coming.  The same Western nations that list Hamas as a terrorist organization say they cannot fund a Palestinian government that includes it.  The “technocratic” transitional government is one attempt to navigate that red line.  But if Hamas does well in elections, the problem will still be there.

This is where things get foggy.  Hamas could conform to Western demands by renouncing terror, accepting the right of Israel to exist and signing on to the agreements negotiated by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the supreme political body of the Palestinian national cause.  And if it wants to join the PLO – as it is trying to do – Hamas eventually will have to do all those things, because PLO membership obliges it.  But that’s an awful lot to expect of a militant group in the space of a few months.

Another option may be to run candidates under a new banner – such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  Hamas grew out of the Brotherhood, and the two have been synonymous in Palestinian politics.  But a few weeks ago in Khartoum, at the same leadership meeting where Mashaal won approval for the shift to nonviolence, the decision was made to enunciate a “Muslim Brotherhood – Palestine” chapter.  Why is not entirely clear. But one possibility is as a party label that’s less notorious in the West than Hamas.

What does appear clear is that Mashaal was speaking for the organization when he announced the shift to Abbas’ approach, despite subsequent public grousing from Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Hamas’ prime minister there, Ismail Haniyeh.  Dissent is permitted in the organization, Hamas members say, but Mashaal’s announcement of a new, more moderate line was made only after approval of the majority — one that, in its years governing Gaza, has shown a growing appetite for international acceptance. And Washington, at least, has been giving it space to maneuver in that direction.  Last May, when the reconciliation was announced, Netanyahu angrily slammed the door on talks that would include Hamas while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly did not.

“In the Mecca Agreement [a 2007 pact setting the ground rules for reconciliation], Hamas said it accepts the obligations of the PLO,” says Musleh. “This shows that Hamas doesn’t see things as black and white, it’s willing to try different means in order to achieve what it’s after. I honestly believe Hamas will get closer to the PLO and be involved in the elections, if the elections take place. Hamas is a not a closed movement. It studies the changes and is affected by what’s happening on the ground and around it.”

Meanwhile, perhaps in keeping with the reformist currents of the Arab Spring, Mashaal announced he was not running for another term as head of Hamas’ political office. However, in the context of the Islamic Resistance Movement,  as Hamas is officially called, that doesn’t mean he actually wants to leave the job. “The way the system works, in the movement we are not allowed to say, ‘I’m running.’ But you can say, ‘I don’t want it.’ This is what Mashaal has done,” says Ahmad Abed Elazeez Mubarak, a Hamas veteran on the West Bank.  “We understand exactly what he means.” It is the need for an appearance of political modesty.  “It’s a matter of everybody else calling for you,” says Musleh.  “If the movement said you must continue, he must continue.”