Analysis

Hamas' Troubles Don't Stop at the Israeli Border

If the group wants to survive it must balance its ties among Mideast players – from Ramallah and Egypt to Qatar and Iran

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh visiting his office that was hit in an Israeli airstrike, Gaza City, March 27, 2019.
Hamas Media Office / Handout via Reuters

On the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump signed his decision recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Israeli bombs began falling on the Gaza Strip, Saleh al-Arouri, deputy to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, held a three-hour conversation with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

A meeting at that level between the two organizations is rare. They severed ties almost completely after Hamas cut ties with Syria due to the Syrian government’s slaughter of its own citizens, including Palestinians. This naturally also caused a rift with Iran that has healed slightly only in the last year.

Did Hamas decide to renew relations with Syria and Iran by using Nasrallah as a mediator? Hamas sources said the organization never really severed ties with Iran and doesn’t need Hezbollah’s mediation to renew them. But friendly relations are one thing; a commitment to fund Hamas is much more complicated.

What’s not yet clear is whether Arouri was acting on his own or got a green light from Haniyeh and Hamas’ religious leadership. A dispute has arisen recently over his authority. He wants a free hand in running the organization’s “foreign policy,” especially since he can move freely between Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Qatar, whereas Haniyeh needs permission from Cairo every time he leaves Gaza via Egypt, and Cairo doesn’t always grant it.

Egypt dictates the makeup of the Hamas delegations that come to Cairo for talks. It once refused to receive such a delegation because it didn’t include Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, whom Cairo is comfortable with.

The dispute over Arouri’s freedom of action has been joined recently by Maher Salah, who’s responsible for Hamas outside Gaza. He has told associates that he might resign because the leadership doesn’t include him in decisions, and his share of the organization’s budget is much too small for the tasks assigned him.

Both Saleh and Arouri are also angry that senior Hamas officials in Gaza accused them a few months ago of pocketing a hefty cut of the money they collect for the organization. That also raises questions about Arouri’s diplomatic mission to Hezbollah.

Haniyeh and Sinwar see Egypt as essential to Hamas’ continued operation and to achieving a cease-fire with Israel that will permit Qatari aid and Gaza’s reconstruction. A tilt in favor of Syria and Iran via Hezbollah could disrupt the delicate relationship with Egypt, including the agreements reached in February after three weeks of talks between Haniyeh and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

Egypt considers Qatar hostile because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties with Iran and the constant criticism by Qatari television station Al Jazeera, thus it joined Saudi Arabia’s boycott of the country. The paradox is that Egypt approved Qatar’s provision of emergency aid to pay Hamas’ salaries and buy fuel for Gaza. In times of crisis, even bitter enemies can cooperate.

Egypt is neither willing nor able to contribute to Hamas’ budget, but it continues to try to mediate both between Hamas and its Palestinian rival, Fatah, and between Hamas and Israel. Qatar provides the money needed for the Egyptian-Israeli effort to succeed.

Balancing act

Ismail Haniyeh, left, meeting with Egyptian intelligence official Ahmed Abdel Khalek in Gaza City, March 5, 2019.
Ismail Haniyeh's Press Office / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Another candidate to provide financial aid to Gaza was Turkey, but Egypt and Israel vetoed it. The indirect aid it gives Hamas also seems to be shrinking. The balancing act Hamas must perform to survive curbs its freedom of action and forces it to filter its potential allies.

Qatar has pulled the chestnuts out of the fire not only for Egypt and Israel (which defines Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism), but also for the Arab League and especially Saudi Arabia, which haven’t moved to raise money for either Gaza or the Palestinian Authority. In 2010, the Arab League set up a special fund to help the PA. But even though Israel has frozen tax transfers to the PA under a law passed last June, the league hasn’t rushed to channel money to the PA, and through it to Gaza.

This week, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara met in Cairo with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and asked him to push the league, at its summit in Tunisia on Sunday, to provide an economic safety net for the PA. If the league decides to help, Hamas could also benefit if it agrees to join the national unity government that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh to form.

Shtayyeh is considered a strong and independent figure who has good ties with most of the Palestinian parties, including Hamas. Unlike his predecessor, Rami Hamdallah, whom Abbas viewed as an executive responsible for carrying out his orders, Shtayyeh is likely to clash with Abbas if the president puts obstacles in his path. This is also his weakness, because he won’t hesitate to resign if he can’t form a unity government to his own taste.

But Hamas has so far refused to cooperate with him because Abbas appointed him without consulting Hamas, as required by the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement signed in 2014. And without an agreed Palestinian government, the Arab League is unlikely to agree to give money to the PA, and from there to Hamas.

Abbas objects to Qatar giving money to Hamas, saying it perpetuates the rift between Fatah and Hamas and discourages reconciliation. But that’s a ludicrous argument because Abbas is the one who decided to stop funding Hamas’ salaries, in the hope that this would force Hamas to accept reconciliation on his terms. This includes PA authority over all of Gaza’s civilian affairs, PA control of Gaza’s border crossings and Hamas’ disarmament.

Yet Hamas can’t rely on the Qatari money, which is expected to total $150 million over the six months starting last November, over the long term. Moreover, the conditions Israel set on this aid following the embarrassing photos of money entering Gaza in suitcases – that it be given directly to the needy, and that Jerusalem approve the recipient lists – make it hard for Hamas to take a cut.

Two dozen groups in Gaza

Developing a stable funding system that will provide for Hamas’ ongoing needs is the organization’s most difficult challenge. But it’s not the only one.

Israel views Hamas as solely responsible for everything that happens in Gaza, and especially for preventing attacks against it. It doesn’t accept the argument that at least two dozen organizations operate in Gaza, not all of which agree with Hamas’ conduct toward Israel.

Hamas does maintain military cooperation with Islamic Jihad, the Popular Committees, the Popular Front and the Democratic Front through a joint operations room that also runs the committee coordinating the Marches of Return. But even among these groups there’s plenty of disagreement. For instance, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials met in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence in February, Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhalah left Egypt in a fury after clashing fiercely with both the Egyptians and the Hamas officials over the group’s launch of two missiles at Israel.

This month, Hamas took action against the Sabireen Movement, which split from Islamic Jihad. It collected the group’s weapons and forbade its activities; in exchange it freed the movement’s leader, Hisham Salem, after 17 days in a Hamas prison. This organization – which, according to Arab media reports, receives about $1 million a month from Iran – has demanded that Hamas shoot rockets at Israel and described Hamas’ leaders as traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Salafi organizations like Jaish al-Islam, Jaysh al-Ummah, Asbat al-Ansar, Jaish al-Quds al-Islami and another half dozen or so don’t accept Hamas’ authority and periodically act independently. Some of these groups swear loyalty to the Islamic State and others to Al-Qaida.

But the threat these groups pose to Hamas isn’t just military. They’ve recruited many young Gazans who are attracted either by the radical religious ideology or the money they get from these organizations. The Salafi groups accuse Hamas of heresy and define it as a political rather than a religious organization, one willing to negotiate even with Israel to survive.

It’s hard to judge how many followers they have in Gaza. But when Gazans go out to demonstrate against Hamas under the slogan “We want to live,” the Salafists join them, and together they undermine Hamas’ legitimacy.

These connections among groups of young Gazans who are willing to go out and demonstrate for a better quality of life, rather than only for the Marches of Return, undermine Hamas’ authority and ability to unilaterally determine the scope of the protests at the Gaza-Israel border. Those protests are the only significant expression that remains of the term “national resistance.”

Rockets and missiles have become goods to be bargained over in the cease-fire talks because they’re easier to control. But the demonstrations along the fence could become a double-edged sword. They’re creating an organized resistance and solidarity among people in distress that could be turned in an instant against Hamas, especially given its failure to achieve anything substantial for Gazans through these protests.

Trapped among these competing pressures, Hamas’ room to maneuver is steadily shrinking. It needs a show of economic strength to support the policy of calm that it’s trying to promote with Israel, but neither humanitarian aid nor the temporary payment of salaries meet this need. This is the ball that will soon roll into Israel’s court if it wants to achieve a cease-fire.