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The rise of Hamas

It appears that the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006, has come out of the latest Israeli offensive in a greatly enhanced regional position. This has prompted questions about its ability to make the most of the diplomatic opportunities it has gained.

Hamas's strong response to the Israeli military operation in November 2012, which included the launch of rockets aimed at, and reaching, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has attested to its commitment to its ultimate principle of struggle and perseverance. Moreover, in the wake of the 8 day battle, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who has been in exile for many years and survived an Israeli assassination attempt, visited Gaza via Egypt. As the head of the Hamas political bureau, his triumphant appearance in Gaza highlighted the picture of a victorious Hamas, both nationally and internationally.


Beyond Gaza, the rise of Islamic politics in the Arab Spring countries, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, has created a more friendly and supportive environment for Hamas. Consequently, the Cairo negotiations, which led to a ceasefire with Israel, involved direct high-level diplomatic contact between Egypt and Hamas, which is a fundamental shift compared to the position of the ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, who was very much anti-Hamas.

The visits to Gaza made by the Emir of Qatar and the Turkish Foreign Minister, as well as other regional leaders, further enhanced Hamas's new status. Such support for Hamas has built-up its credibility in the region, creating opportunities to receive large donations from Arab and Islamic countries for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who opted for peace negotiations with Israel and renounced armed conflict, has become more isolated than ever. This is despite his success in upgrading the status of Palestine at the UN to that of a non-member observer state just days after the battle in Gaza.

Initially, Hamas's reaction to the status upgrade at the UN was sceptical, turning to open support post-ceasefire in the expectation that it would be able to take advantage of Palestine's new position in the world body.

These developments, combined with the chronic financial problems of the Palestinian Authority, led to the decline of Abbas's credibility among Palestinians, who now view him as a desperate man. On top of that, Israel's announcement of even more new settlements around Jerusalem after the vote at the UN has weakened Abbas's position further. It looks as if Abbas's time is running out but who will replace him?

Hamas is seeking to take advantage of its growing popularity to win fresh elections. During the municipal elections held last October in the occupied West Bank for the first time in 6 years, the secular Fatah party was quite successful in maintaining its majority. However, the voter turnout was only 55 per cent, due in part to Hamas's call for a boycott, leading to an overall decline in Fatah's support. Now, Hamas is seen far and wide as the true representative of national Palestinian aspirations and the group capable of forging national unity under one flag. This would, of course, also depend on Hamas being able to find a common platform for negotiations with Israel.

There is no doubt that Hamas has not given up on resistance to Israel's occupation, but it has adjusted its position towards the conflict over time. Hamas leaders have, for example, expressed their support for establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This gradual shift, combined with Hamas's support for Abbas's diplomatic approach at the UN, suggests that Hamas believes that a military victory over Israel is not possible; that Palestinian and Israeli leaders will have to work out their differences and reach a diplomatic agreement.

The signs of Hamas's new perspective have become increasingly clear. Despite Meshaal's firm stance expressed in his speech in Gaza, he has in private expressed his willingness to establish a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. He has even said that if Israel reconsidered its position on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which calls for the Arab world to recognise Israel's right to exist in exchange for Israel returning to the 1967 borders, Hamas will do the same.

Nevertheless, despite Meshaal welcoming the idea of negotiations with Israel in the future, he has insisted that the time is not yet right. Hamas is convinced that Israel only understands the language of power and authority, and will not negotiate with Israel before it accepts the inevitability of Palestinian demands.

Perhaps this message is starting to get through to those with influence in Israel. The latest battle pushed some Israeli politicians, such as Giora Eiland, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's National Security Adviser, to admit that Hamas is a political reality that can no longer be ignored. Eiland even advised the Israeli government to recognise Hamas's rule in Gaza, lift the blockade and to negotiate directly a long term ceasefire with the movement. The success of such an approach relies on Israel's willingness to deal with Hamas, which it still regards as a terrorist group, and the possibility of continued Egyptian mediation.

Furthermore, Israel may be subject to growing pressure from its main ally. America's acceptance of Islamic parties in the region, such as Al-Nahda Party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, suggests that default suspicion of Islamic groups may have started to diminish. This raises doubts about whether the United States will maintain its strict policy of isolating Hamas.

The success of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in mediating between Israel and Hamas has proved that Islamists can be flexible when it comes to Israel. There is room for moderation on the part of both sides, but the leaders of Hamas and Israel must set out the right foundation from which they can both make the necessary adjustments.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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