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After Soleimani Killing, Hamas Caught Between Gaza Calm and Iranian Support

Jack Khoury
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Ismail Haniyeh speaks during the funeral prayer over the coffins of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Tehran, Iran January 6, 2020.
Ismail Haniyeh speaks during the funeral prayer over the coffins of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Tehran, Iran January 6, 2020.Credit: Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS
Jack Khoury

Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip were faced with a dilemma over the weekend, following the assassination of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, by the U.S.

His death came at a delicate time for Hamas, which is in the midst of negotiations with Israel over a long-term agreement regarding the Gaza Strip. The decision by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to go to Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran on Monday could lead to some unexpected responses by Egypt and Israel.

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Talks between Hamas and Israel over the last few weeks, under the aegis of Egyptian intelligence officers and Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, have revolved around easing conditions for Gaza residents and the promotion of civilian projects in the Strip.

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In military and strategic terms, Iran’s influence on Hamas and Islamic Jihad is dramatic. Tehran is channeling funds to the military wings of both organizations, and many of these groups’ senior officials live in Damascus and Beirut, under the protection of Syrian intelligence agencies or Hezbollah. 

Coffins of Qassem Soleimani and others killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession, in Mashhad, Iran, Jan. 5, 2020. Credit: Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim News Agency via AP

Thus, the participation of Haniyeh and Ziyad Nakhaleh, the Islamic Jihad’s secretary-general, in Soleimani’s funeral is not that surprising, but will be judged by its implications, especially as related to Egypt.

Haniyeh has been away from Gaza for over a month, after getting a green light from Egypt to tour several Arab and Muslim states. Hamas sources in Gaza told Haaretz that his visit to Tehran was related to the assassination, adding that Haniyeh probably informed Egypt of his intention to go from Doha, in Qatar, where he’s been in recent days, to Tehran.

“Egypt’s view of things doesn’t necessarily conform with Israel’s view, so that this visit won’t necessarily lead to an Egyptian response,” said one source. Sources emphasized that Haniyeh has visited Turkey and Qatar, which in Egypt’s eyes are more dangerous than Iran. “There is no reason for Egypt not to show restraint or ignore this, as long as Hamas abides by the guideline and agreements reached with Cairo.”

According to these Hamas sources, talks between Egypt and the organization, meant to reinforce the relative calm along the Israel-Gaza border, have reached advanced stages. Over the last year, Egypt and Hamas have discussed intelligence and security issues, as well as regulating the border crossing at Rafah, including the importation of goods on a large scale. Both are interested in continuing such talks Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in Gaza, is leading the negotiations on his group's side, sources said. 

“The dilemma is not simple for one main reason,” one of Haaretz's sources said. “Hamas defines itself as a popular resistance organization. It can’t do without Iran and Hezbollah from a military-strategic perspective. Bit for over a decade, Hamas bears responsibility for more than two million civilians, and Egypt is an anchor without which Hamas could not be in control.” The sources further said that Hamas' inclination is to “tread carefully while keeping a careful and delicate balance. Attesting to this is the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad expressed their anger and condemnation of this assassination, but no one is thinking of any military response.”

An Egyptian source with high-level contacts in the government and military intelligence confirmed to Haaretz that Hamas believes that Egypt will not officially respond to the Tehran visit or take any immediate steps against Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders. He noted, however, that Haniyeh may have to wait a long time before being allowed to return to Gaza, or to leave it again anytime soon.

“This is a complex issue,” said the Egyptian source. “On the one hand, there is the open declarative aspect – a Hamas leader comes to Tehran and praises Soleimani while attacking the U.S. and Israel. On the other hand, there are attempts on the ground to maintain the calm and prevent the collapse of the Strip, mediated by Egypt and international players. In practice, Hamas is interested in a deal in exchange for easing conditions in the Strip. Egypt understands this and will not do anything to disrupt this formula.”