“The most important thing now is to reach a cease-fire and stop the slaughter,” Nabil Sha’ath, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television. Immediately afterward, the station interviewed Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, who retorted, “The most important thing now is a high-quality, painful response to the Zionist occupation by the resistance.”
A strategic disagreement? Not necessarily. Just as every Israeli cabinet minister, Knesset member and “senior officer” can say whatever they want, so can figures in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas does not have just one spokesman. Sami Abu Zuhri bears the title of official spokesman, but numerous other Hamas officials periodically issue statements.
The multiplicity of sometimes contradictory statements reflects a genuine debate over tactics, such as whether to accept humanitarian cease-fire proposals, but not strategy, which so far has not changed: Any final cease-fire must be part of a package deal that ends the blockade of the Gaza Strip, opens the Rafah crossing with Egypt, provides money to pay salaries to Hamas government employees and allows Palestinian fisherman to operate freely in the Strip’s territorial waters.
Though Hamas is a hierarchical organization, decisions are made through consultations in which ego and personal ambition play a role, as in Israel and other states. Moreover, there is a deep and bitter rift between Fatah and Hamas, which wants not only a “victory picture” against Israel, but also to position itself — and not Fatah and the PA — as the true representative of the Palestinian people.
This internal struggle was demonstrated on Tuesday. Soon after PLO Executive Committee Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo announced that the Palestinian factions had agreed on a cease-fire and a joint delegation to Egypt, Abu Zuhri denied that any such agreement existed. The Hamas spokesman later said, “Abed Rabbo isn’t Hamas’ spokesman,” adding that the organization’s leaders were furious with “Fatah” for claiming ownership of the delegation. But later still, Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad said Abed Rabbo’s statement was correct and the agreement had the personal approval of Khaled Meshal, the Qatar-based head of Hamas’ political bureau.
Meshal has run the political bureau with an iron first since 1996. But because Hamas has a ramified organizational structure — its other branches include the political leadership inside Gaza, the military wing and the Shura Council, which sets the organization’s policies — Meshal needs a great deal of flexibility and political diplomacy to maintain his status.
Two years ago, for instance, when Hamas came out against the Assad regime in Syria, Iran demanded Meshal’s resignation. He announced that he was ready for a break, but was promptly reappointed.
Meshal was originally a compromise candidate, between Abdel Aziz Rantisi (assassinated by Israel in 2004) and Moussa Abu Marzouk, and the Shura Council feared it wouldn’t be able to find a successor who could similarly unite the ranks, or at least prevent Hamas from splitting.
Now Meshal must ensure that the war in Gaza doesn’t end his career, this time due to opposition from within. He succeeded in forcing Hamas to accept the reconciliation agreement with Fatah, after Qatar made it clear to him that failing to do so would cost the group Qatari support, but the war’s consequences could well spark an internal revolt if Meshal cannot secure real gains.
At the same time, Meshal is being forced to wage a complex diplomatic battle. On one hand, he recognizes that Gaza’s future depends on reconciliation with Egypt, which controls the Rafah border crossing and is so far sticking adamantly to its original cease-fire proposal. But Hamas’ existence depends on Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, which are Egypt’s rivals.
Abu Marzouk, who sees himself as a candidate to succeed Meshal, on Wednesday urged Hezbollah to join the war and open a second front against Israel. It’s not clear Meshal shares this desire, especially in light of Egypt’s refusal to let an aid convoy from Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, enter Gaza.
Amid this welter of competing considerations, in which the main achievement the organization seeks is diplomatic rather than military, the issue of the cease-fire itself has become secondary.