Hamas Struggles to Stay Afloat, Beset by Challenges From Egypt, Syria and Iran

Enmity of the military-backed government in Cairo threatens the movement’s continued rule in Gaza.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hamas’ external leadership has instructed the movement’s leaders in Gaza to refrain from public expressions of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and cease all activities by its military wing in support of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

The instructions were contained in a strongly-worded letter from Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashal, parts of which were posted on Palestinian websites. Abu Marzouk also called on Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas in Gaza, to prevent declarations and demonstrations against the Egyptian army and the military coup in Egypt.

The background to Abu Marzouk’s unusual letter was Saturday’s demonstrations by military organizations in Gaza, during which the Egyptian army was criticized and support expressed for Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Rabaa Al-Adawiya square in Cairo. Incidentally, missing from these demonstrations were activists from the Popular Front organization, who claimed that Hamas activists had broken an agreement to refrain from calls supporting the Muslim Brothers.

Abu Marzouk’s letter attests to the stark dilemma now facing Hamas, following recent events in Egypt. These developments now threaten its continued rule in Gaza.

With Morsi due to be charged with conspiring with Hamas, among other indictments, the Egyptian army having destroyed most of the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, with the intention of establishing a buffer zone between the two, and with the Rafah border crossing open only sporadically, the last remaining political, economic and military lifeline to Gaza is being shut off.

Estimates are that the Hamas government needs $37 million a month for salaries and running expenses, but on the eve of the Id Al-Fitr holiday it paid only partial salaries amounting to NIS 1,000 to each person. It’s not clear where money will be found to pay its 42,000 employees this month. Reports from Gaza indicate a dire shortage of fuel due to the closing of the tunnels, leading to a reduction in public transportation. The prices of basic goods have increased significantly and social services have been drastically reduced due to harsh budget cuts.

Hamas’s decision to cut itself off from Syria also led to a breach with Iran, which stopped most of its financial assistance. Sources in Gaza say that whatever still arrives from Iran is like “scraps thrown to the dogs.” Hamas’ standing in Egypt was greatly destabilized when the Egyptian army took over and the Egyptian media now describes Hamas as an enemy that needs to be fought, after alleged links were found between the organization and terrorists in Sinai.

There is growing opposition to Hamas within Gaza itself. Activists from Fatah and from social protest groups have set up the ‘Tamrud Aza’ (Gaza Resistance) group, drawing its inspiration from the Egyptian Tamrud movement, which was behind last June’s demonstrations in Cairo that led to Morsi’s ouster. Hamas officials blame Fatah for initiating the civil resistance group, but it’s not clear how popular it really is. Nevertheless, preparations for mass demonstrations in November pose a new kind of challenge to Hamas.

There is also mounting ideological pressure on Hamas, following its signing of a ceasefire agreement with Israel at the end of the Pillar of Defense operation in December 2012. Rivals are questioning whether the agreement voided Hamas’ standing as a resistance movement. The formulation of the agreement called for a cessation of ‘hostile acts’ by both sides. Rivals of Hamas decry the fact that it agreed to define its actions as hostilities, rather than as acts of resistance, thus undercutting the national and ideological basis for its existence as a military organization.

Moussa Abu Marzouk referred to this agreement on his Facebook page, saying that Hamas signed a tahdiya, or truce agreement with Israel, and not a ceasefire. The label ‘hostilities’ was suggested by Egyptian Intelligence officials when Hamas objected to ‘offensive acts’, the term suggested by Israel. It was designed to prevent Israel from terming its own actions as ‘defensive’ measures. Israel objected to ‘military actions,’ since that would define Hamas as a terror organization. ‘Hostile acts’ was the compromise arrived at. The result is the same. Hamas is forbidden from taking any action against Israel and units from its Izz A-Din Al-Qassam brigades patrol the border with Israel in order to prevent rival organizations from launching attacks.

The Hamas leadership is at a loss for a course of action that would extricate it from its internal and inter-Arab crisis. The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas’ declaration of his intention to hold elections on the West Bank, contrary to the position taken by Hamas, puts the movement in an impossible position. If they participate in elections, they may suffer a rout. If they continue to oppose holding elections, they may find themselves outside the political game, without any support from the Arab world. The best course of action would be to implement the reconciliation agreement reached by Fatah and Hamas, but in light of its present weakness, implementing the agreement will detract from any advantages Hamas was hoping to gain.

A traffic jam in the Gaza Strip.Credit: AFP

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