Hamas is an interesting organization. It is involved in charity, governance and terrorism. Not necessarily in that order.
Perhaps, most surprisingly, it owes its existence and predominant position largely to Israel.
"Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel's creation," says Mr. Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to Israel's destruction.It was a serious miscalculation on Israel's part.
Instead of trying to curb Gaza's Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah. Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas.
Eventually, Hamas came to power in Gaza and purged all Fatah elements from the new administration. It is now being supported by Syria and Iran, two implacable foes of Israel. It has links to Hezbollah. And it has been firing home-made rockets to Israel. In short, it is a major thorn on Israel's side.
But ever since the Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh rivalry surfaced, Hamas has been doing unexpected things. Last year, after some obscure Jihadist group kidnapped and beheaded an Italian peace activist Hamas began a serious crackdown on Salafists. It kept raiding their headquarters, arresting them, confiscating their arms and even convicted them of murder.
In a recent piece entitled "Hamas Finds Itself Aligned with Israel over Extremists Groups" this is how the New York Times described the situation:
“Hamas is tightening the grip on our necks and storms our houses,” a Salafist said in an interview this week at his house in a refugee camp in central Gaza. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid the attention of the Hamas authorities, he added, “We are chased down by Israel, Hamas and Egypt.”In fact, this curious triangle, Israel, Hamas and Egypt, is the main reason behind Hamas' new urgency to go after the Salafists.
Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas: Brothers No More
The Haniyeh fraction, which is in control of Gaza, has been somewhat reluctant to battle the Salafists as these are frequently former Hamas members or people to whom they are related. But since the Egyptian elections, Hamas realized that Muslim Brotherhood (their spiritual source) was not feeling warmly towards the Haniyeh fraction.
After a border incident where the Salafist overran an Egyptian border post and killed 16 solders, Mursi closed down some of smuggling tunnels that run from between Egypt and Gaza, choking the local economy. He also turned down their requests for a more open border policy, more assistance to Gaza and larger connection to Egypt's electrical grid.
In fact, his Prime Minister told a large Hamas delegation that if they want relations with Egypt to improve they need to continue with the Fatah reconciliation process. Which prompted a member of the delegation to call Mursi "Mubarak with a beard."
As you know from my previous posts, Meshaal has been pushing for reconciliation with Abbas and a peace process with Israel. Qatar, which has been providing funding and support to Meshaal, is also an important ally for Egypt. Recently he gave Mursi's cash-strapped government $2 billion ahead of IMF negotiations.
Israel and the Fragile Truce
Hamas is also under pressure from Israel as the Salafists are largely responsible for the recent rocket attacks. Israel retaliated and killed one of their senior leaders in a drone drop. But they warned Hamas that their shaky truce will not hold unless they remove the Salafist threat and do so rapidly and with determination. They seem to comply:
“They have arrested and interrogated about 30 of our mujahedeen (fighters),” Abu Abdullah, who heads a Salafist group called the Mujahedeen Shura Council, told AFP.Israeli officials say that Hamas' efforts are still half-hearted but others view them as a success.
"Hamas is keeping the truce with the Jews while the enemy (Israel) is chasing mujahedeen day and night," he said in a statement sent to AFP.
"What hurts us is that people who call themselves Muslims in the internal security forces are pointing the dagger at the chest of the mujahedeen and won't stop their campaign against them," Abu Abdullah said.
Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, noted that since the crackdown in 2009, the number of attacks against cafes and entertainment sites in Gaza had decreased dramatically.Hamas' Future
“Hamas has been overwhelmingly successful in containing Gaza’s Salafi-jihadi groups,” Mr. Thrall wrote by e-mail.
To me, this situation Hamas found itself in is significant for two reasons.
First of all, it clearly shows that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government is not going to intervene on behalf of fractions that want to continue to fight with Israel. Their precondition of reconciliation with Fatah is a de facto support for Meshaal, who, along with Mahmoud Abbas, wants to negotiate a two-state plan with Israel.
If you have been reading this blog, you know that I have been claiming that this is the ultimate reason behind the Arab Spring. I think Mursi has so far remained surprisingly faithful to that playbook and avoided anything that could jeopardize the larger scenario.
I also believe that the visit of the Emir of Qatar was very significant in that respect. The Emir seems to have been given the role of a nicer Saudi Arabia: A moderate Arab ruler who is willing to write a cheque for good causes.
I am not surprised that Israel and others were quick to condemn his visit. But to me, what he was doing was to use a carrot to get Haniyeh to realign himself with Meshaal and Abbas. Essentially, he was saying, "if you want my money, forget about your ties to Iran, get closer to Abbas and work with all regional players towards a peace process."
Criticizing Israel for the blockade and extension of settlements should hardly be seen as providing support to Haniyeh. They are relevant points in that context and not mentioning them would have been more surprising and reduce his credibility as an Arab leader. But he hammered home the notion that Haniyeh needs to get on board and make common cause with Abbas.
The second aspect of this new alignment of Hamas that I find interesting is that it puts them in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't-bind.
If Hamas were to refuse this offer by Egypt and Qatar and say no to squeezing the Salafists and to working with Fatah, their future would not be very bright. Their economy could be brought to its knees by Egypt. They control the Rafah passage and the tunnels. They could close them. And Mursi implied as much. They would become completely isolated and financially broke. Moreover, they would lose their fragile ceasefire with Israel. Life could get even more unpleasant for the people of Gaza if Israel were to attack their tiny region regularly.
Given their meager financial and military resources, I cannot see them surviving such adverse conditions. Their government would collapse in a matter of weeks.
Conversely, if they continue to go after the Salafists, they risk to alienate their increasingly radicalized rank-and-file and lose the support of a significant portion of the population of Gaza.
Most importantly, they could be branded as traitors and collaborators.
Even if you have only a rudimentary knowledge of Gaza, you know that there is nothing worse than that over there.
So, when I saw the title in the New York Times piece, I thought that this did not bode well for Haniyeh and Hamas and it could be the beginning of the end.
This is a complex chess game.