The revolutions in a number of Arab countries and their effects on a number of strategic issues, at the forefront of which is the Palestinian case, are at the centre of much discussion. In Palestine’s case, the discussion has to include Hamas and its status, position on the revolutions and future within the Palestinian national project, of which it is one of the main actors.
How did Hamas interact with the Arab Spring revolutions? What will be the repercussions for the Islamic Resistance Movement and its power and influence in the conflict with Israel?
Keeping its distance
If there is one policy that can summarise the position of Hamas it’s that of “keeping its distance” from the revolutions. This description fits the movement’s position on all of the revolutions, regardless of the relations between Hamas and the regimes against which the revolutions have started, and regardless of the position of those regimes on the Palestinian cause.
When popular protests broke out in Tunisia and turned into a full-blown revolution, Hamas kept quiet until the regime fell. This, even though the Bin Ali regime was dependent on the West and had suspicious ties with Israel, and Hamas was convinced that the fall of the regime would be in its own best interests. The form that the new regime would take was largely irrelevant, because of the support among ordinary Tunisians, religious and secular alike, for the Palestinians.
Hamas took the same position when the Egyptian revolution broke out, despite the bad relations between the movement and Hosni Mubarak, Israel’s “strategic ally” who was hostile towards Hamas to the point that his government supported the coup against the Hamas government. Mubarak also, it should be remembered, participated in the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Hamas not only kept silent but also prevented any signs of open support in Gaza for the revolution, not least through control of the media.
The Syrian revolution was tackled in a slightly different manner, perhaps due to its slow build-up. In answer to media queries, Hamas spokesmen usually said that the movement does not interfere in the affairs of Arab countries, but it does respect the aspirations and legitimate goals of the Arab people.
Justification for such position
What pushed Hamas to take a similar stand on all of the revolutions even though they themselves differed in substance and style? Why hasn’t Hamas supported its allies in the Syrian regime? And why did it refrain from even vocal support for its allies in the Islamic and national movements which were in opposition to regimes such as Bin Ali’s and Mubarak’s?
The main factor affecting Hamas’s position is inherited from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its relations with Arab regimes. Non-interference in internal affairs has been the norm to avoid any reaction against Palestinian refugees in their host countries. The PLO’s experiences in Jordan and Kuwait are prime examples of what can happen, with “Black September” in Jordan and 400,000 Palestinians being thrown out of Kuwait thanks to Yasser Arafat’s support for Iraq during the so-called first Gulf War.
The second factor is that Hamas is a resistance movement not an independent state able to take national positions on all kinds of issues regardless of the potential risks. If other states don’t or can’t take positions on their neighbours’ affairs, how can a mere movement, especially given that it is trying to operate under a stifling blockade supported, even tacitly, by neighbouring states?
All of this is being looked at within the framework of a realistic political analysis and not as an ethical or moral critique.
A key factor is the impact of Gaza’s geographical position on the ability of the government there to do anything. In particular, this has affected relations between Hamas and Egypt, which controls Gaza’s only non-Israel land route to the outside world. For Hamas to take a contrary view to the government in Cairo would be tantamount to committing suicide, so the movement kept quiet until the regime fell. That didn’t stop the Mubarak regime’s security agencies from accusing Hamas of killing demonstrators in Tahrir Square “in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood”.
The Syrian impasse
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, it was clear that it would pose a major challenge for Hamas. This was the first revolution against a regime opposed to American ambitions in the region; a regime which was a Hamas ally for more than ten years and hosted the movement’s political bureau, giving it a large degree of freedom in political and media action. All of that at a time when most other Arab regimes were hostile towards Hamas, or at least kept their distance in order not to anger the US or the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
Any position on the Syrian revolution would, therefore, have been a risk for Hamas. Support for the Assad regime would have dealt a blow to the movement’s moral stand against Israel, which has won a lot of popular respect in the Arab world. Support for a regime which kills its own people in a bloody tyranny, while calling simultaneously for the legitimate rights and freedoms for the Palestinians, was definitely off-limits for Hamas.
The Islamic Resistance Movement also knew that it would lose the support of the Syrian people if it backed the regime. Hamas realised that people last, whereas regimes fall, so maintaining that support was essential.
However, if Hamas supported the Syrian revolution, as most supporters of the movement expected it should and would, this would’ve placed more than six hundred thousand Palestinian refugees hosted by Syria in danger. In addition, it would have created a huge problem in securing safe exits for Hamas officials and activists, as well as a strong feeling of having “betrayed” the “loyalty” of the regime expressed to Hamas over a number of years.
Nevertheless, the longer the revolution went on, with ever more casualties amongst civilians, the harder it became for Hamas to stay in Syria and remain silent. It had to declare its support for the people of Syria and remove the card the regime was using when it represented itself as a sponsor and supporter of the resistance movement.
This is what pushed Hamas to leave Damascus altogether and make official statements in support of the Syrian revolution. The Assad regime’s state-controlled media reacted with vicious attacks on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the movement itself.
Pros and cons
The benefits for Hamas arising from its position towards the Arab revolutions can be summarised thus:
- Keeping balanced relations with the Arab countries because of its commitment not to interfere in their internal affairs.
- Garnering more popular support in Arab states as a result of the movement’s moral stand on the Syrian revolution even though it challenged its own pragmatism and short-term political interests.
- Guaranteeing a long-term relationship with the Syrian people, who will no doubt be victorious over the Asad regime; they will remember Hamas’s sacrifice in standing against Asad and for the legitimate rights of the Syrians.
- Putting an end to the accusations directed at Hamas that it is a tool in the hands of the Syrian regime and a collaborator with Shiite Iran. Clearly, it is able to take its own, independent decisions.
Losses to Hamas can be summarised as follows:
- The movement has lost an important ally in the Syrian regime, with no immediately obvious replacement able to help it as much as Damascus did. The support of the people of Syria, while important, will not materialise into such backing any time soon as they will need time to rebuild their country when the Asad regime eventually falls, as it will.
- A blow to relations with Iran, which has been a main supporter of Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip. Iran has already put pressure on Hamas and threatened the movement with an end to financial support.
- Losing political links with leftists and Arab nationalists and the popular support they represent, after more than ten years of strategic alliances between leftists, nationalists and Hamas in most Arab countries.
Although Hamas may lose out in the short-term, on balance its positions vis-a-vis the Arab Spring revolutions will be positive, proving that siding with the people but not interfering in internal affairs was the right approach. This will benefit not only the Islamic Resistance Movement but also the Palestinian national project.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.