Analysis |

Why Didn’t Hamas Join Islamic Jihad Against Israel? Ideology

Pragmatism doesn’t contradict the notion of the struggle to establish an Islamic nation but rather enables it, according to the group’s ideologues. This approach also enables deals with Israel

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza in 2019.
Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza in 2019.Credit: Adel Hana/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Hamas is the backbone of the resistance, and we’re in an eternal pact against the enemy,” Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah declared this week after the cease-fire with Israel. It doesn’t seem that such a declaration was necessary. It’s taken for granted that the two groups have been brothers in arms in recent years, but Hamas violated this alliance when it stayed out of the three days of fighting.

Palestinians on social media were shocked. “How could brothers in arms split? Is this a rift? Did Hamas stop being a resistance movement?” one person asked.

Another wondered, referring to Hamas’ top two leaders: “Where did Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh disappear to? Why didn’t resistance weapons go to help their Jihad brethren?”

The explanation for Hamas turning a cold shoulder was rational for the most part: Hamas sought to preserve its achievements from last year’s fighting. Maybe Hamas preferred to focus on rebuilding Gaza, keeping the funds from Qatar flowing. Maybe it succumbed to pressure from Egypt, which has permanent leverage over the Rafah and Saladin crossings, or it wanted to let Islamic Jihad bleed to prove that only Hamas can fight Israel alone.

But these explanations actually highlight Hamas’ profound ideological dilemma. A senior Hamas official said in a media report published on June 21 that the group had decided to renew relations with Syria. A week later, Khalil al-Haya, Hamas’ chief of relations with the West, confirmed these comments.

A Hamas supporter demonstrates in the northern Gaza Strip in April.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/Reuters

This announcement set off a storm between opponents and supporters of renewing relations, which were severed in 2012, around a year into Syria’s civil war. Turkey rushed to inform Hamas’ leaders of its “contempt” for a revival of ties. Qatar was less firm but wasn’t enthusiastic. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was following developments closely and hoped to see the ties renewed.

Everyone involved provided diplomatic reasoning for their position. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar Assad became bitter rivals after Assad rejected Erdogan’s request to stop slaughtering Syrian civilians and recommended that Assad resign. Qatar seeks good relations with both sides but has funded rebel militias in Syria. Nasrallah has an interest in advancing an Arab normalization with Assad to restore his legitimacy.

But the Syrian Islamic Council, whose leaders have met with Haniyeh, presented him with a more interesting argument, a religious one: “Renewing relations with Syria will hurt the Muslim nation. It will position the organization on the Iranian axis, which is inimical to the Muslim nation and deals fraudulently with the Palestinian problem and takes part in the spilling of Muslim blood in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”

The council, founded in 2014, operates in Turkey. It sees itself as the Sunni religious representative of the rebels with supreme authority to issue the religious rulings in the battle against the Assad regime. When a group like Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is represented on the Syrian Islamic Council – acts against the council’s goals, it’s dealing a mortal ideological blow.

The argument that the council made to Haniyeh frames Hamas as both an Arab and a Sunni Muslim movement. In other words, it has nothing to look for in a non-Arab, Shi’ite country like Iran.

The Syrian Islamic Council can relax for now. Assad still hasn’t agreed to meet with Hamas’ leaders, and the group says it’s still in the exploratory stage. Meanwhile, the council’s position drew strong reactions from reconciliation supporters, chiefly the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a powerful group with some 90,000 members from countries and all sects, including the Shi’ites.

Ahmad al-Raysuni, a Moroccan theologian, heads the union, which was founded in 2004. In 2018 he replaced Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who’s considered the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Following the Syrian Islamic Council’s criticism of Hamas, al-Raysuni said that “politics should serve principles, and needs take precedence over everything.”

As an example, he noted how even the Algerian rebels against France sought Soviet help despite the ideological gaps and obvious religious differences. “The decision to renew relations with Syria is interest-based to serve the resistance,” he ruled.

This position is supported by a religious ruling stating that needs permit forbidden things. If Hamas believes that this step bests serve the resistance, there’s nothing to prevent it.

“But who decides what is permitted and what is forbidden? Where does the border lie between need and choice?” asked Mohamed El-Moctar al-Shinqiti, a political ethics professor at Qatar University.

In an article on Al Jazeera’s website last month, he discussed a fundamental dilemma of any movement that’s both political and religious: “Is cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah or Iran a need or a choice? Do the movement’s interests trump the nation’s interests?”

For Hamas, which is waging both a religious and a national struggle, this dilemma isn’t only ideological. The controversy that its moves stir among countries, theologians and political strategists shows that it long ago crossed the line from being a local group waging a private war against Israel.

Hamas operatives in Khan Yunis, last year.Credit: Yousef Masoud / AP

Its political legitimacy, and its ambition to become the Palestinian people’s sole representative and the vanguard against the occupation, force it to seek both a religious and political consensus – in Arab and Muslim countries as well.

Here lies the essential difference between Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The latter has no pretensions about ruling the Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. Its lone goal is to fight the occupation and, as it sees it, liberate Palestine.

Hamas represents a much broader worldview by which the state is only one stage in building the united Muslim nation in which there is no room for independent states, which are products of colonialism. Thus the struggle against Israel can withstand flexibility as long as this pragmatism serves the supreme utopian idea.

Islamic Jihad also holds to the idea of a Muslim nation but isn’t willing to postpone the end. It does put off the preparation of hearts and minds, a necessary stage according to its philosophy and Hamas’, until the Muslim nation forces principles on hearts. Hamas bases religion on politics; with Islamic Jihad it’s the other way around.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of Hamas’ founders, once said, “Palestine has no priority over other Muslim countries and is not superior to the principle of the Islamic nation.” This is an unusual and Iran-inspired position that has the national struggle serving the religious, ideological fight.

The question of what better serves the resistance allowed Hamas to adopt the position it took during Islamic Jihad’s fighting this month. On the face of it, this approach is opportunistic, flowing from a strict cost-benefit analysis. The group can justify it with the argument that needs permit forbidden things.

But this attitude also justifies cooperation with Islamic Jihad when needed, or the brutal fight against political and religious rivals like the Salafist groups. It also paves the way for indirect deals with Israel regarding prisoner exchanges and a long-term truce.

Such deals don’t matter as long as they don’t involve recognizing Israel. Rather, they’re a temporary situation, however long that should be, leading toward fulfilling the national Muslim idea.

The political manifestation of this approach isn’t only visible regarding Islamic Jihad and Israel but also regarding Hamas’ relations with countries like Turkey and Qatar on one side and Egypt on the other. Hamas freed itself of Saudi stewardship and Iranian dictates, which are forced on Islamic Jihad.

And, as if it were a state, Hamas can consider without pressure whether to renew relations with Syria. Hamas succeeded where the movement that spawned it, the Muslim Brotherhood, failed. It’s not a persecuted group. It can whitewash its pragmatic behavior with religious arguments.

It rules its own territory. It’s not obligated to collaborate with its political rivals like Fatah. And it can be considered the vanguard of the Muslim nation.

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