Jane’s, an internationally respected British security and defense risk-analysis firm, has recently reported that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, is on “the brink of renouncing armed resistance and moving to a policy of nonviolent resistance to Israel.” Jane’s, with which I have been a monthly writer to three of its publications since 2007, has several hard-to-ignore quotes in its report of Hamas leaders saying that the move was not “tactical” but “strategic.” Also interviewed are Palestinian Authority intelligence officers who said that Hamas’s strategy was “gradual and nuanced,” with one senior officer telling Jane’s that Hamas “intends to keep its military and security units to control the situation in Gaza, not necessarily to fight the Israelis.” The interviewees’ names were not mentioned for obvious security reasons.
I urge every subscriber to Jane’s to read that groundbreaking piece of reporting because, even if it is not publicly confirmed yet by Hamas’s leadership, it has all the makings of a fascinating story which I am positive will generate an intense debate not only in the Arab world and Israel but also in Washington and other Western capitals. The story is starting to get serious attention in the international press with the Financial Times, Sydney Herald Tribune and other media outlets covering it.
The report, written by my friend and colleague David Hartwell, Jane’s Middle East and Islamic affairs editor, argues that the springboard for this new strategic approach by Hamas is the Arab uprising. More directly, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey reportedly played a key role in convincing Hamas to reconcile with its historical rival Fatah and end armed resistance against Israel. Hartwell writes that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, in a meeting on November 24 in Cairo with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, accepted “in writing with a signature” the need to embrace peaceful activism. And if this is not controversial enough, echoing Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, Hamas’s leadership also told Jane’s that it will be “downgrading its ties with Syria and Iran and forge new relationships with Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey.”
In some ways, perhaps, this development could have been foreseen. Even the most ideological and stubborn actors in the Middle East have been forced to adjust to the new political realities created by the Arab uprising. Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, has been feeling increasingly vulnerable and isolated lately because of the escalating civil conflict in Syria and the threat that poses to its ally, the Syrian regime. Hezbollah recently made significant concessions at home, including its approval of funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon—an entity that Hezbollah’s leadership for years had viewed as a tool used by Israel and the United States to defeat it. Other signs of Hezbollah’s contemplation of life after Syrian president Bashar Assad include its decision to move most of its military hardware that has been stored in Syria back to areas under its control inside Lebanon, including the South and the Bekaa.
Yet despite its evident tactical adjustments, Hezbollah hasn’t suggested any intent to disarm, forge new strategic alliances or end its military struggle against Israel. In fact, in a rare public appearance this month, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah declared that his party will remain defiant, side with Assad’s Syria and never relinquish its arms. If Hamas, an ally of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran (the so-called Resistance Axis), truly intends to reinvent itself, that would be a historic development with massive political and security implications not just for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also for the whole of Middle East politics.
There are numerous questions surrounding Hamas’s reported decision, the most obvious being why it could have possibly adopted such a stance. It is one thing to say that Hamas felt motivated and/or pressured by Turkey, Egypt and Qatar to renounce violence. But it takes much more for an organization to abandon everything it has stood for and create for itself a new identity. After all, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have tried countless times in the past to shape Hamas and lure it, with financial and political rewards, to leave the pro-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah camp and give up armed struggle. The strategy did not work simply because Hamas felt it had much more to lose than gain. The Resistance Axis was always on the rise, especially after the 2003 Iraq war as Iran and Syria gained influence in the region at the expense of their rivals.
No more. Today, with Iran feeling more cornered by the international community (minus Russia and China) than ever because of its controversial nuclear program and with Syria’s regime fighting an existential battle against its own people, the balance of power is shifting in the Middle East, and this has not gone unnoticed by Hamas. It is foolish to deny that Hamas’s decisions and behavior have been partly driven by ideological convictions and motivations, but it is also wrong to argue the organization has not acted rationally, based on material interest. The decision it reportedly has currently taken may be further proof of that.
While it is important to remember that Hamas’s leadership has not gone public with its decision, it is worth noting that the majority of its external political staff has already evacuated Damascus, where it has a key office managed by Meshal. Their next destination is likely to be Cairo and Doha, where leaders there have committed to sponsoring the movement politically and financially. Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas has refused to say publicly that it is siding with the Syrian regime, a move that has angered not only the Syrian leadership but also the mullahs in Tehran—causing them, according to Jane’s and other sources, to stop providing financial assistance. With money drying up and winds of change rocking the region, it is no wonder Hamas was fed up with Syria and Iran. One also cannot exclude the sectarian underpinnings of Hamas’s decision. While Hamas never allowed its religious identity—Sunni—to prevent it from forming necessary and strategic alliances with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, the party is pragmatic enough to realize that positioning itself against the Sunni Islamist tide that is currently sweeping the region (in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, possibly Syria and elsewhere) is against its long-term interests. Having operated in the Iranian strategic orbit in the past, Hamas might now wish to embrace its old identity as a branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas’s decision, if real, will take time to implement. Since its founding in 1987, the organization’s bread-and-butter stance has been armed resistance coupled with terrorist activity. Should Hamas’s leadership publicly state its new strategy, the first thing it will have to do is come up with a new charter as evidence to the world that its move is not propaganda. The organization will also need substantial help from Arab countries and others interested in such a development. The world, including the United States, will not accept Hamas’s transformation if it is half-hearted. In other words, Hamas will have to integrate its military into the security forces of the Palestinian Authority in order to get the attention and support it desires.
The implications of such a Hamas decision could be huge. Theoretically, it will create a united Palestinian front. In other words, there would be few divisions within Palestinian society to inhibit progress in negotiations with the Israelis, a major boost for the Palestinian cause. Two things remain unclear, however: how Hamas’s constituency and Israel would deal with this massive shift. It is not unreasonable to assume that Hamas would not make such a dramatic move without testing the waters and feeling the mood in the Palestinian street. Hamas knows its constituency well enough to realize that the costs it might suffer as a result of such a decision are likely to be tolerable. Furthermore, Hamas’s support base is not necessarily ideological. Many credible polls suggest that those who have voted for Hamas over the past few years have done so out of pragmatic reasons and anger toward Fatah for its governmental failures. As far as Israel is concerned, the suspicion is that moderates and those truly committed to peace and a two-state solution will be supportive of Hamas’s transformation. The hard-liners will remain critical and will always find an excuse to object. Marking its twenty-fourth anniversary this week, Hamas leaders did not even hint that they may switch strategy. They insisted instead that they will never recognize Israel. For Israeli hard-liners, this is reason enough to remain skeptical of any move by Hamas.
If Hamas actually seeks to pursue such a decision, the United States will be confronted with a crucial choice. It can lend its verbal and material support for the move and cite its concerns and reservations. Or it can stand against it and endorse whatever the Israeli government says and does on the matter. Hence, a large onus likely will rest on Washington as well as on Hamas.
Bilal Y. Saab is Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.