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Hamas has suffered more than a little embarrassment in the past few weeks. It began with the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai and the obvious implication that a Hamas insider had aided whatever agency carried out the hit.

Next came Mosab Yusef, son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef - a founder of Hamas and one of its top men in the West Bank - who revealed in an interview with Haaretz that he had worked as a Shin Bet agent for more than a decade.

Hamas, of course, responded immediately with claims of the inevitable 'Zionist plot'. But as if to add insult to injury, on Friday Haaretz reported that Mahmoud Zahar, one of the group's leaders in the Gaza Strip, had resigned from a team negotiating the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Zahar, it appeared, had become increasingly frustrated with the extreme line favored by the organization's political leadership in Damascus and by senior military commanders like Ahmad Jabri, Nizar Awadallah and Marwan Issa.

As usual, Hamas claimed a Zionist conspiracy against the Palestinian nation - only for the German weekly Der Spiegel to publish the very next day an interview in which Zahar confirmed his departure from the talks.

Zahar predictably blamed the Israeli side for the breakdown - but this is somewhat implausible. With all respect, it is hardly likely that his exit would force a change in Israel's negotiating tactics.

To cap it all off, on Tuesday Mosab Yusef gave an interview to Christine Amanpour on CNN, listing his grievances with Hamas in agonizing detail.

Faced with all this, it is increasingly difficult for Hamas to attribute all its troubles to 'Zionist lies'.

Beyond embarrassments, it seems Hamas faces a far nastier predicament: A deep rift at the heart of the organization. Repeated attempts to dispel the rumors with claims of unity have not been enough to mask a widening split between the political leaders abroad on one side, and the government and military commanders in Gaza on the other.

Zahar's resignation is unprecedented. It is a sign that he, along with Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and MPs in Gaza and the West Bank - who together make up the group's pragmatic wing - are shocked by the radicalization of Meshal's faction in Damascus, as are the military commanders.

While the group's more pragmatic bosses are have approved an Egyptian draft for a reconciliation with Hamas' secular rival, Fatah, their comrades abroad have continually rejected a compromise, preferring instead to travel to Tehran for a show of solidarity with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As Zahar, Haniyeh et al work to mend ties with the Arab world, especially with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they must contend with the pictures coming out of Tehran and Damascus showing a smiling Meshal sharing a conference table with Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Zahar, a doctor by profession, has in the past few years marked himself out as one of Hamas' more restrained chiefs. Despite losing two sons to Israeli bombs aimed at him, he is seen within the group as a leader of the moderate camp. He is close to the Egyptians, supports a rapprochement with Fatah and is keen to broker a prisoner swap for Shalit - even at the expense of damage to Hamas in terms of both influence and reputation.

Two days ago Zahar gave an interview to As-Shams Radio, which broadcasts in Arabic from Nazareth. Asked whether he belonged to the 'Egyptian camp' or the 'Iranian camp', he flew into a rage. "I am not a part of that game - Tehran and Cairo are not enemies," he said.

But in the new Middle East, Tehran and Cairo are exactly that. A moderate Sunni camp, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, is at war with an alliance of Iran Syria and Hezbollah.

In practice, Hamas has already chosen sides. There are not a few senior figures in the organization who would rather not align themselves with the "axis of evil". But Meshal and his friends in Damascus and Tehran have left them little option.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff on March 3, 2010

Previous MESS Report posts:

  • Is Israel really a target for chemical warfare
  • As the West woos Syria, Assad aligns himself with Iran
  • Exclusive: Hamas leader quits Shalit talks over internal feud
  • The almost unbelievable story of Israel's spy in Hamas
  • When Palestinians keep Israelis safe
  • Who's afraid of Israeli far-rightists?
  • Israel and Palestinians pass Jericho test
  • Media failed in Dubai hit, not Mossad
  • Iran in the cross-hairs