One of the most enduring epithets for Hamas, right up there with “terrorist,” is “proxy.” If you Google “Hamas Iran proxy,” you get 1,750,000 hits. The idea that the relationship between Sunni Hamas, the Gaza affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shia Iran was merely a marriage of convenience and not a true love match is rejected by those who forget that most enduring maxim of Middle East politics: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And implicit in that maxim are two more words: “for now.”
This conventional wisdom is due for a makeover. On January 17, a Ha’aretz headline announced “Hamas brutally assaults Shi'a worshippers in Gaza.” The article reported that Hamas fears “growing Iranian influence in Gaza.” But for years, we have been told that it is Hamas itself that represents Iranian influence in Gaza. What gives?
Further down in the article, the picture begins to make sense when we read that Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) members in Gaza are “converting” to Shiism. For Hamas, the “Arab spring” does not lead to a “summer of roses and wine” (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan). A day later Khaled Meshal, the head of the organization, still based in Damascus, unexpectedly announced his resignation. The regional picture is changing, and Hamas is trying to catch up.
For years, Hamas, Syria and Hezbollah, all “proxies” of Iran, have been seen as Iran’s vanguard in threatening Israel. But with President Bashar al-Assad fighting for survival against a Syrian popular uprising, of which Syria’s majority Sunnis are an integral part, Hamas could not continue its close relationship with Syria. To Assad’s intense anger, Hamas has declined to support him against his people. Reportedly, Meshal remained in Damascus only under immense Iranian pressure. Meanwhile, Hamas activists are streaming out of the city, and it is a good bet that Meshal’s successor, yet to be chosen, won’t be based there. The recent thaw between Jordan and Hamas leads to speculation he might be in Amman. Jordan can under no circumstances be turned into a base for attacks on Israel, but it would be an excellent venue for a change of policy as well as of leadership.
Already, Hamas has softened its image—and seemingly its political stance as well. It announced on December 29 it was ceasing attacks against Israel (but not renouncing violence). In the wake of the deal that freed Gilad Shalit and over one thousand Palestinians, it is also renewing its dormant “reconciliation” with Fatah.
If Hamas is distancing itself from Iran, its longtime patron, and Syria is not in a position to threaten anyone outside its borders for the foreseeable future, the organization needs to find a new patron—which may require an adjustment of its policies. Even if rapprochement with Jordan develops, Jordan is too small a player to be Hamas’s main patron. The obvious candidate for the role is Egypt, home of Hamas’s parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt, like Jordan, is at peace with Israel, and there is little likelihood that will change, even with the Brotherhood as the dominant political party. Thus, even though Hamas will not “recognize” Israel, (a process rarely demanded of a political movement), it will have to realize that it cannot be launching missiles against a country with which its potential new patrons have peace treaties that they value highly.
And this brings us back full circle to “Hamas’s brutal assaults” on the Shia in Gaza. It is little recognized in Israel and the West that Hamas has a running battle going on with the PIJ within Gaza, which gains new adherents whenever Hamas makes a move towards moderation. PIJ has been linked to al-Qaeda, whereas Hamas has been supported by Iran. It now seems that Iran and PIJ are allied, and so Hamas viewed itself as really attacking its old enemy, PIJ. Hamas clearly understands that these PIJ members are demonstrating their loyalty to Iran by proclaiming themselves Shia. Its erstwhile patron is supporting its enemy.
Thus, Hamas could now be in serious trouble. The spring that has helped Islamists elsewhere in the region has deprived Hamas of its longtime patrons and emboldened and empowered its enemy at home—PIJ. It must somehow adapt—quickly—to the new climate. This helps explain its seeming moderation, though it has given hints of this possibility for years.
But here again we must remember, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Iran is Israel’s foremost enemy and—what no one would have guessed—has apparently fallen out with Hamas, at least for now. This is clearly to Israel’s advantage.
No one is forecasting warm relations between Israel and Hamas. But now that the two archfoes share a common threat—Iran—a repetition of Israel’s Gaza War of 2008-2009 is appreciably less likely. And perhaps even the United States, now that it is talking to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, might also realize that Hamas, despite being a terrorist organization, is also a political player and hence must eventually be part of any Middle East peace.
Paul Scham teaches Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Image: Barry Hunau