Hamas and the Arab Uprisings
Gaza City/Cairo/Jerusalem/Ramallah/Brussels |
14 Aug 2012
New dynamics in the Arab world present opportunities for Hamas and the West to redefine their relationship, but it will take a far greater display of pragmatism and realism than either has exhibited.
Light at the End of their Tunnels? Hamas and the Arab Uprisings, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines those dynamics – the Islamists’ regional ascent; shifting U.S. and EU postures toward them; uncertainty within their Palestinian offshoot – and the ways in which Hamas has been pulled in opposing directions by the events that have shaken the Arab world. It abandoned its headquarters in Damascus, at considerable cost to relations with its largest state supporter, Iran, while improving ties with such U.S.-allied states as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. Tensions within the movement, meanwhile, have reached new heights.
“The strategic divide within Hamas largely corresponds to two views”, says Nathan Thrall, Crisis Group Middle East Analyst. “The Gaza leadership holds that, because regional changes are playing largely to Hamas’s favour, the movement should do little other than hold fast to its positions as it waits for its domestic posture to improve and its allies to grow in strength. Leaders in the West Bank and in exile, by contrast, argue that the movement should take this rare occasion to make tough decisions that might bring about significant long-term gains”.
The contest plays out most vividly over Palestinian reconciliation, a primary demand of Palestinians touching on vital questions the movement faces, including integration within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), control of the Palestinian Authority, the status of security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, formation of a joint national strategy with Fatah and Hamas’s political endgame with Israel.
The international community has a stake in the choices Hamas ultimately makes. The movement will continue to play a vital role in Palestinian politics, affecting the prospect of renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well as their odds of success. Territorial division, coupled with Gaza’s economic isolation, contains the seeds of renewed conflict with Israel. Deadly turmoil in Sinai last week further underscores the need to stabilise the situation in Gaza and on its border with Egypt.
The U.S. and Europe should seize the opportunity presented by two related developments: first, the rise to power of Islamist movements that are keen on improving relations with the West and crave stability; secondly, the intense debate taking place within Hamas. Among realistic objectives: a more formal Israel/Hamas ceasefire agreement; enhanced Hamas efforts to stabilise the situation in Sinai; reaffirmation by Hamas, as part of a unity deal, of President Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel; and its pledge to respect the outcome of a popular referendum on such an accord. In return, Hamas could benefit from reciprocal Israeli guarantees over a Gaza ceasefire; an improvement in the Strip’s economic status; and an assurance by the U.S. and EU that they would engage with a Palestinian unity government that carried out those commitments.
“Twice in the past – after the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and after the 2007 Mecca unity accord – the international community missed the boat in its approach toward Hamas”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “With a third chance coming, amid dramatic improvements in relations with Islamist movements region-wide, the West should make sure it is not, once more, left stranded at the dock”.