Recent weeks have witnessed an escalation in tensions  from within Hamas, as separate centers of power vie to determine the future course of the movement. The contenders are the leadership in Gaza represented by Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, and the Damascus-based overall leadership represented by Khaled Meshaal who heads the group’s political bureau. While Haniyeh holds control of a breakaway branch of the Palestinian Authority in the isolated Gaza strip, Meshaal is supported by Hamas members from the West Bank and the Diaspora. Recently, the ongoing public revolt against Meshaal’s Syrian host, President Bashar Al-Assad, has put the head of the political bureau in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
A first assessment assumes that the struggle centers around the implementation of a reconciliation document signed by Meshaal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo in May 2011. The agreement was concluded against Gaza’s ill-concealed opposition to the proposal under Haniyeh’s leadership. The Gaza prime minister attempted to torpedo the agreement by praising the “martyr Osama bin Laden” on the eve of the concluding ceremony, a move which drew sharp global condemnation. Although the reconciliation was meant to bring about a government of technocrats and to allow for long-overdue Palestinian elections, Haniyeh’s refusal to accept West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as leader of the interim government has continued to foil implementation of the agreement.
While the question of who will lead the government is far from concluded, there is more at stake than personal ambition. What lies at the core of the conflict is a fundamental struggle over the future of Hamas as a movement and the eventual transformation of Hamas from a terrorist organization into a legitimate political party. While the outcome remains unpredictable, signs of internal friction are obvious.
In December, Ismael Haniyeh embarked on a western-bound Mediterranean tour in an attempt to gather political support from post-revolutionary regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Yesterday, the Gaza prime minister started a second diplomatic circuit that will bring him to Iran and several Gulf countries. To the dismay of Palestinian diplomats loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, Haniyeh has so far used these visits to stress Hamas’ commitment to “armed resistance“, underlining what he views as “the futility of peace negotiations” with Israel. Similar statements are expected in scheduled meetings in Tehran. In Gaza, Haniyeh has proven uncompromising with a recent call to merge Hamas with the die-hard Islamists of Gaza’s Islamic Jihad who have never ceased terror operations against Israeli civilians.
Haniyeh’s rallying of support has not gone unnoticed by Khaled Meshaal. Contrary to the Gaza prime minister, Meshaal silently backed recent “exploratory talks” between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Amman. At the same time, Meshaal has attempted to bring Hamas closer to the secular institutions of Palestinian political life as he pushes for Hamas integration into the Palestine Liberation Organization, which at the moment does not include Hamas. Integrating Hamas into the PLO would close Palestinian ranks and effectively mean a cessation of violence from Hamas. At the same time, it would represent at the very least a tacit acceptance by Hamas of agreements previously signed between the PLO and Israel.
Reacting to turmoil in Syria, Meshaal has recently been forced to prepare the ground for a relocation of Hamas’ Diaspora headquarters. The head of the political bureau made a long-anticipated visit to Amman yesterday, in what marked the first official visit by a Hamas leader to the Hashemite Kingdom in over a decade. According to Jordanian sources, King Abdullah hosted Meshaal and received an official request to grant Hamas a presence in Amman. Relocating Hamas headquarters from Iran-backed Damascus to Washington’s closest remaining Arab ally in the region would be an important symbol for a comprehensive re-invention of Hamas.
Only days ago, Meshaal backed his approach by announcing to step down as leader of the political bureau in protest against Gaza’s refusal to fall in line. Elections for the Hamas Shura Council, the group’s highest decision-making authority which appoints the movement’s leader, are due in April. It is unclear whether Meshaal will ultimately follow through with this threat, as observers speculate that Meshaal could be re-elected despite his recent declaration. Alternatively, he might be elected to head a new and independent Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, he still enjoys wide support amongst Hamas rank-and-file in the West Bank, the Gulf-states, and Jordan, and is also backed by a large faction of anti-Haniyeh activists in Gaza.
While the outcome of this power-struggle is far from pre-determined, current developments present western decision-makers with an opportunity to influence the outcome, and to support internal shifts from Hamas as a renegade terrorist militia to a necessary partner in the peace process. Hamas leaders such as Khaled Meshaal, who express readiness to cease violence and to accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, should be taken at their word. With Washington’s embracing of moderate Islamists in Cairo and Tunis, representatives of political Islam in the Palestinian territories should not be treated differently. Instead of resorting to the ineffective policies of un-differentiated boycotts, Washington and European governments should choose to engage the reformist groups from within Hamas. While it does carry political risks, such an approach might just tip the scales in the right direction.