Hamas' Sinwar Has the Approach Israel Should Back

He’s offering a conciliatory model, but if he has nothing to lose he’ll link the Gaza-based leaders with the militant leaders in exile and return to the path of military action

Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh, left, and Yahya Sinwar at a rally marking the group's 30th anniversary, December 14, 2017.
Khalil Hamra / AP

Hamas has taken a gamble three times and has lost each one. Each of these failures has exposed the differences between Hamas’ leaders in Gaza and its leaders abroad in defining the movement’s goals and ways to achieve them.

The first gamble was the decision to take part in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 and try to become the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people instead of Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas won the election, but in the absence of political legitimacy from Israel and the Arab and international community, it was repeatedly dragged into destructive wars with Israel.

The second gamble came with the decision to split from Shi’ite-Islamic-Iranian opposition forces in favor of a return to the Sunni-Islamic-Arab axis. Hamas assumed that the uprisings that erupted in the Arab world in 2011 with Qatari support would lead to the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of the Sunni Arab regimes, which would then become allies of Hamas instead of Shi’ite Iran.

The Muslim Brotherhood did in fact come to power in Egypt, but soon enough it was deposed by Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. He declared the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas illegal. Qatar, Hamas’ main ally and sponsor, which replaced Iran after the Hamas leadership in exile moved to Qatar from Syria in 2011, was also declared a subversive force, and some Arab and Gulf states imposed a blockade on the Qataris.

The third gamble was the decision to normalize ties with Egypt and seek its help in advancing a Palestinian national reconciliation with Fatah. Hamas assumed that cooperating with Egypt, with which Gaza shares a border, could provide more significant political and economic gains than those it received from its alliances with wealthy but more distant countries – Iran, Qatar and Turkey. It also assumed that its willingness to reconcile with Fatah might relieve Hamas of responsibility for the Palestinian split and strengthen it in future elections.

But as of now, Hamas hasn’t managed to complete the reconciliation process and lift the sanctions that were imposed on Gaza by the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel. Its failed gambles have sharpened the power struggles between the movement’s leaders in exile and Gaza, and have highlighted the differences among the leaders’ three approaches.

The first is the conciliatory approach of the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who has been looking inward at Palestinian society and views the alliance with Egypt and national unity as the key to freeing Palestinian society from its economic, social, political and national ills. He has called on all segments of society to save the reconciliation effort, and has expressed a willingness to put Hamas’ weapons of resistance under the authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He has repeatedly said Hamas does not want a war with Israel. His actions have reflected a genuine effort to douse Hamas’ destructive reputation and restore its image as a national movement working for the economic, social and political benefit of the Palestinian people.

The second approach is the radical one represented by Ismail Haniyeh and Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas leaders in exile. They have returned to the demand of a unitary state in Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. They look outward and hope that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will come to their aid to step up the armed struggle against Israel from alternate bases of resistance in Lebanon and Syria.

The third approach, the middle one, is espoused by Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas Shura Council. He believes in taking advantage of every opportunity to advance the interests of the Palestinian people. In his view, popular resistance in the West Bank and Jerusalem are preferable at this time to heating up the Gaza-Israel border. He also believes that Abbas’ resignation isn’t desirable now, but that Abbas should come to a quick consensus with the Palestinian factions on a single Palestinian strategy in the national struggle.

Difficulties over governance among the Gaza leaders, the loss of effectiveness of the rockets and tunnels against Israel, and the weak progress in the reconciliation process and lifting of sanctions expose the futility of the Gaza-based leaders’ approach. Meanwhile, the leaders in exile have been making an ideological comeback that might strengthen them at the expense of the weak leadership in Gaza. The exiled leaders have reverted to the radical resistance of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis and the theater of conflict in Israel’s north, freed of the constraints imposed on the Gaza-based leaders.

The exiled leaders’ return to the Shi’ite camp could provide it with more precise and sophisticated weapons, ease its efforts to recruit new fighters from the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, and let it use Hezbollah’s and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ training bases.

Which of three approaches to encourage? That of the Gaza-based leadership led by Sinwar. A failed reconciliation effort and continued restrictions on Gaza imposed by Egypt, Israel and the PA would be considered Sinwar’s political failing. And if he has nothing to lose he’ll link the Gaza-based leadership with the militant Hamas leadership in exile and return to the path of military action. That would be a lost opportunity for the Palestinian people, but also for Israel.

Ronit Marzan is a researcher in Palestinian politics and society at the University of Haifa's political science department and a fellow at the university’s Chaikin Geostrategy Institute.