For Hamas, the Arab uprisings have been both a blessing and a curse. They have raised tensions with Syria and Iran, the movement’s largest backers, while strengthening ties with United States allies such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. The Arab uprisings have also deepened internal contradictions and rifts among the Palestinian Islamist movement's varied constituencies.
Before the upheaval, Hamas was able to keep its many differences largely beneath the surface. With few significant opportunities on the horizon, no contest among visions was necessary. But following the tumult of 2010-11, Hamas found itself in a dramatically altered environment with novel challenges and possibilities, and longstanding tensions and new forms of friction emerged.
In broad terms, these reflect four interrelated factors:
* the group’s geographic dispersion and its leadership’s varied calculations, themselves caused by differing circumstances (in Gaza, prisons, the West Bank or outside)
* ideological distinctions, particularly - albeit not exclusively - related to varying assessments of the impact of the Arab upheavals
* varying roles in the movement’s political, military, religious, and governance activities
* pre-existing personal rivalries.
The contest within Hamas has played out most vividly and publicly over the issue of Palestinian reconciliation. That is because the latter is a primary demand of Palestinians and touches on many important strategic questions faced by the movement, including integration in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the status of security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, the formation of a national strategy with Fatah, and Hamas’s political endgame with Israel.
Hamas’s internal differences over national strategy, particularly how far to go in reconciliation negotiations, stem in large part from contrasting perceptions of what short-term effects the Arab uprisings will have on the movement. These visions have been shaped by the distinct first-hand experiences of the leaderships in Gaza and, until recently, Damascus. The strategic divide corresponds to two main views related to two different sets of interests.
The first is that because regional changes are playing largely to Hamas’s favour, the movement should hold fast to its positions and wait for the PA to weaken, economic conditions in Gaza to improve and its allies to grow in strength. The second view is that Hamas should take this rare opportunity to make tough decisions that might bring significant long-term gains.
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.
Reuniting the West Bank and Gaza is not only desirable, it also is necessary to achieving a two-state settlement. And territorial division, coupled with Gaza’s persistent economic isolation, contains the seeds of further conflict with Israel. For these and other reasons, the world - and the west in particular - must do more than merely stand on the sidelines as Hamas wrestles over its future.
Instead, the US and Europe should test whether they can seize the opportunity presented by two related developments: first, the rise to power (notably in Egypt) of Islamist movements that are keen on improving relations with the west, crave stability and are signalling that they do not wish to make the Israeli-Palestinian issue a priority; second, the intense debates taking place within Hamas over the movement’s direction.
A third chance
But even if Hamas is susceptible to influence by third parties, the west should not overreach or exaggerate its own influence. The Islamist movement is uncertain and in flux but not about to abandon fundamental positions; persuading it to accept the conditions of the Quartet (United Nations, United States, Russia and the European Union) as such is out of the question. Instead, acting in concert with Egypt and others, the US and the European Union should set out to achieve changes that are at once less rhetorical, more meaningful and less onerous for Hamas.
These could include entering a more formal ceasefire agreement with Israel over Gaza; exerting efforts to help stabilise the situation in Sinai, the gravity of which was underscored by the militant attack on Egyptian soldiers on 5 August 2012; reaffirming, as part of a unity deal, President Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate to negotiate a final-status agreement with Israel; and pledging to respect the outcome of a popular referendum by Palestinians 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 US and EU that they would engage with a Palestinian unity government that carried out those commitments.
Egypt - even under the Muslim Brotherhood - shares interests with Israel on each of the above. It too wants calm in Gaza; it too would prefer to stabilise the Sinai, as it has sought to do with a military campaign launched in reaction to the August attack; and it too might benefit from resumed negotiations under Abbas’s aegis, which would help remove a potential irritant in US-Egyptian relations, improve the overall regional climate, and prepare the ground for a new peace process. Why not try to take advantage of this?
Twice in the past - after the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006, and after the Mecca unity accord of 2007 - the international community missed the boat in its approach toward Hamas, adopting policies that produced almost precisely the reverse of what it expected. Hamas consolidated its control over Gaza; a war and dangerous flare-ups have occurred with Israel; Fatah has not been strengthened; democratic institutions in the West Bank and Gaza have decayed; and a peace deal is no closer. Now. 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.