Hamas Leader Goes Hunting: In His Sights Are Egypt, the Gulf, and the State of Palestine

Ismail Haniyeh tours the Mideast to build a sustainable economic foundation for the Gaza Strip. But he also must maintain his alliances, and if successful, pitch himself as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people

Hamas movement chief, Ismail Haniyeh, waves on his arrival to meet with the head of the Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, in Gaza City, October 28, 2019.
Khalil Hamra,AP

Since he was chosen as head of the Political Bureau of Hamas in the summer of 2017, Ismail Haniyeh has not traveled outside of the Gaza Strip – except for work trips to Egypt. While his deputy Saleh al-Arouri enjoys freedom of movement and travels all over the Middle East, and while Khaled Meshal, Haniyeh’s predecessor, lives in Qatar and is free to go as he chooses – or to be more accurate, where it is safe for him – Haniyeh has been locked inside Gaza.

After Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah held talks in Cairo last week with the head of Egypt’s intelligence Abbas Kamel, Haniyeh continued on to Turkey, and from there plans to visit Qatar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Lebanon and Mauritania. He also hopes to receive an invitation from the Kremlin to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is not included in his itinerary, and it is also still unclear whether Haniyeh will visit Iran.

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Does granting Haniyeh an exit permit show that Egypt is pleased with the talks Hamas held with Israel? Some Egyptian commentators say the temporary ceasefire with Israel is in its final stages of agreement, and only a few technical questions remain. Sources within Hamas told Haaretz that there is still no agreement, but that Egypt and Israel’s objectives are to gain as much as possible from the long-term truce, which will last between three to five years.

Additionally, the two countries are trying to establish the basis for a prisoner and missing persons swap, a number of Hamas spokesmen have hinted. If true, a swap could serve Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his election campaign - and could also be the secret trump card he is holding close to his chest. Such a swap would clearly include the Hamas prisoners who were rearrested after the Gilad Shalit deal as well as Hamas prisoners still jailed in Egypt (in October, Egypt freed 25 prisoners during a visit of Hamas and IJ representatives.)

The main objective of Haniyeh’s journey is to collect as many donations and commitments to invest in Gaza as possible, in order to aid Hamas in rehabilitating the Strip and building a sustainable economic foundation. This will include the construction of industrial zones on the border with Egypt, some of which will be in Egyptian territory, where thousands of Gazans will be employed.

It seems Haniyeh has already been given the green light by Israel to begin the development stage, once the long term agreement is signed. This development could very well include the construction of an artificial island off Gaza that will serve as a port and gateway for the passage of goods – an agreed upon way to bypass the Israeli blockade of the territory. The project, if built, may not be a short-term solution, but it has already drawn interest from Egypt, which has asked for details about it – because it wants to ensure that its leverage over Gaza in the form of the Rafah border crossing will not be taken away.

Egypt prefers a situation in which every entry and exit from Gaza is under its control, both in economic and security terms. For now, Cairo is pleased with its cooperative arrangements with Hamas over the guarding of the Sinai border. Soon, another observation post will be built, and Egyptian and Palestinian patrols on both sides of the border will be expanded.

A sovereign territory 

Yahya Sinwar, right, and Hamas movement chief, Ismail Haniyeh, center, meet the Head of the Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, in Gaza City, October 28, 2019.
Khalil Hamra,AP

What is interesting is that even without a security cooperation of the kind Israel has with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, there is a kind of cooperation between Israel and Hamas in which Israel views Hamas as the government responsible for security in Gaza.  It's a status that even the PA does not enjoy. Whereas Israel treats the PA's territory as its own - blocking roads, demolishing houses, carrying out nighttime raids and making arrests - that is not how it conducts itself in Gaza.

It can even be said that Israel treats Gaza as a sovereign country: Every entry into its territory - on land or in air - could lead to a violent response, whereas such actions by Israel in the West Bank are routine and do not endanger the citizens of Israel. So while Israel is maintaining a balance of deterrence with Gaza similar to the one that exists with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the PA's territory in the West Bank is at most Israel's playground.

This cooperation, of course, comes at an ideological price. Hamas must explain why it is conducting negotiations with a country that is enshrined in its charter as an eternal enemy, and how an agreement would fit its doctrine of resistance (Muqawama) “by all means.” Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar provided a hard-pressed answer, explaining in an interview that “the ceasefire is just one of the means of resistance that will allow us to breathe, reorganize and amass the tools required for the liberation struggle … We will never provide an eternal truce for the occupation.” In saying this, Al-Zahar admitted that Hamas is also in need of a period of calm. He did not say how long it will be, but assured it will not be forever, meaning it is not a peace agreement, nor is it a recognition of Israel, and therefore does not contradict the foundations of the struggle.

In the PA, and particularly in the Fatah leadership, the response towards Hamas has been criticism and ridicule. They are presenting Haniyeh’s agreement to an American field hospital in Gaza as surrender to American and Israeli dictates, for example, and accusing Hamas of giving its blessing to an American base under the guise of a hospital.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh did not make do with just criticism. He also announced that the PA would begin to operate a hospital funded by Turkey – after two years of delays. To understand this announcement, one must remember that relations between the PA and Turkey are far from being friendly, mostly because of the large support Turkey grants Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prefers to take the credit for himself and not allow Hamas to profit politically from the hospital's opening. Incidentally, the decision to open the “Turkish” hospital is equivalent to the PA admitting that it was the one who prevented its opening until now – and not Israel.

The hospital affair is just one example of the competition over legitimacy between Hamas and Fatah, in the wake of Abbas’ decision to hold parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, which Hamas has agreed to. In addition to technical questions and the need for Israel to allow East Jerusalem residents to vote, a disagreement exists as to whether to hold the elections before reconciliation is reached between Fatah and Hamas – or whether the split does not have to interfere with the vote.

Hamas has already prepared its portfolio of public and civil works, not just in the Gaza Strip but in the West Bank too. Herein lays the other goal of Haniyeh’s trip to Arab and Muslim countries. It will provide him with the opportunity to present himself as a national leader and not just as the head of an organization. It will even allow him to possibly overshadow Abbas as the recognized and official leader of Palestine.

A legitimate leader

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with the Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khaled Mashal (C) and the vice Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh (L) in Doha, Qatar on October 28, 2016.
Handout / Palestinian Presidency

Haniyeh has another important mission on his long journey. He must ensure the continued existence of the refugee status his people receive in Qatar, and try to find mediators who will agree to reconcile between Hamas, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Haniyeh will arrive to the Gulf States at a time when these countries are examining the chances of reconciliation with Qatar.

Signs of reconciliation began to show even before the Saudi national soccer team appeared in the Arabian Gulf Cup games held in Doha. They continued with the announcement by the Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, in which he said Qatar does not support political Islam and or the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Qatar supports all people and not political parties, he said. This was much more than a hint that Qatar is willing to agree to at least one of the demands presented to it by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – who all view the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

It is still unclear whether Qatar intends to demand from Muslim Brotherhood activists living there to leave the country. It is doubtful if this represents a threat to the Hamas leadership in Qatar, whose civil activities in Gaza are continuing to be funded by Qatar. But as part of Saudi Arabia’s struggle against Iran, it is likely Qatar will present Haniyeh with an ultimatum over Hamas’ relations with Iran, as part of the 13 demands Saudi Arabia gave Qatar to limit its relations with Iran.

The ties between Hamas and Iran may have weakened greatly in recent years, but the Hamas leadership in Lebanon continues to conduct relations with Iran and Hezbollah. If Haniyeh hopes to bring Hamas back into the heart of the Arab world and become a legitimate and recognized leader, not just by Egypt and Qatar, he may need to make a strategic decision on Iran, similar to the one made by Khaled Meshal when he chose to cut ties with Syria in 2012.

But unlike Meshal, Haniyeh is shackled to the positions of the Islamic Jihad, which is connected through its umbilical cord to Iran. Any upsetting of the relations between the groups could harm Haniyeh's diplomatic achievements, including the chances of sustaining the ceasefire with Israel. The answer to this dilemma will reveal the difference between Haniyeh the statesman, and Haniyeh the head of an organization – and it seems the greater his diplomatic achievements and the more he has to lose, the less likely he is to embark on a military adventure.