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Hamas answers its critics

May 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

After months of delay the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine, Hamas, has completed its internal elections and returned Khaled Meshaal as head of the political bureau. More than 70 delegates took part in the meeting of the movement’s Shura (Consultative) Council in Cairo, which reaffirmed its confidence in the previous political leadership. The outcome of the process should now silence the rumour mill, if only for a while.

When Meshaal disclosed one year ago that he would step down from the leadership, cynics went into overdrive with speculation of a rift within Hamas. His subsequent visit to the Gaza Strip, in December 2102, to mark the 25th anniversary of the movement’s launch, did nothing to dispel the rumours. The ecstatic reception he received from the people and local leadership alike wasn’t enough to quash media reports of a power-struggle between the internal and external leadership. With this new mandate, however, Meshaal and his newly-elected deputy, Ismail Haniyeh, can now tackle head-on the challenges before them.

In Palestine, Hamas will rightly be called upon to shed its factional image and assume the mantle of a national movement capable of accepting and working with other forces. Paradoxically though, this critical internal matter has been internationalised to the extent that the Middle East Quartet’s conditions are regarded as the criteria for Palestinian reconciliation.

However, there is no chance that Hamas will recognise the State of Israel, renounce armed resistance or abide by the agreements signed between the PLO and Israel, all of which are demanded by the Quartet. This isn’t going to happen: not for a seat in the PLO; a partnership role in a unitary government with Fatah; or any other enticement.

As such, the movement will continue to pursue its objective of national liberation, by all available means. Pursuing this strategy will not, however, confine its efforts to legitimate resistance and attrition against the Israeli occupation, even though that is a central part of its thinking. There are also huge political responsibilities, which extend well beyond the borders of historical Palestine.

So why did the Hamas members insist on another term for Khaled Meshaal? Explanations range from the absurd to the plausible. The former include a claim that this was a stitch-up led by Qatar and endorsed by Israel to domesticate the movement. For the latter there is a view that given the changes taking place in the region and the delicate state of the conflict in Palestine, the movement needs a leader who enjoys popular support at home and is capable of building on past gains abroad, especially across the Middle East.

After 17 years at the top, Meshaal ticks both boxes. Not only did he guide the movement successfully after the assassination of its founding leaders, including its spiritual guide Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, but he also managed most recently to secure the release of hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails, something that Fatah has failed to achieve after two decades of security collaboration with the occupation authorities. Some of those prisoners who were released have been elected onto the new Hamas Shura Council.

In any human endeavour there are bound to be mistakes and, undoubtedly, Hamas has made critical errors, some of which have exposed its weaknesses. Predictably, its detractors have tried to exploit these with divisive references to either an “external and internal rivalry”, or a feud between “moderates and hardliners”.

In his first public speech since being re-elected Meshaal reassured supporters in Cairo this week that Hamas is more united today than at any time previously.

As a result of the Arab Spring Hamas lost its strategic alliance with Syria and by extension, to a lesser degree, with Iran, but that has been compensated by new ties with Egypt, Tunisia, Qatar and Turkey. The movement must, in the immediate future, seek the maximum political gains from such links.

Already, some tangible ground has been covered. The visit by the Emir of Qatar to the Gaza Strip and his financial support for the reconstruction of the enclave was the first by a regional head of state. More recently, Egypt’s decision to allow the movement to convene its Shura Council in Cairo, in spite of the vicious media campaign instigated by Mubarak loyalists, would have been unthinkable under the former regime.

By electing a new political bureau with Khaled Meshaal at its head, Hamas has answered its critics. The man of the moment has sacrificed for the greater good his personal preference to step down. On more than one occasion he has insisted that he wants to set an example for Palestinian and Arab political leaders by allowing leadership rotation and the transfer of authority. That ideal has been put on hold for now.

Looking ahead, Hamas cannot afford to rely on the personal charisma and popularity of its leader. It must articulate a political vision and programme that can inspire the Palestinian people and their partners in the region and beyond. Inevitably, principles will at times conflict with interests. When that happens, even the “pragmatic” Meshaal must ensure the primacy of principles and values. The national goals of reconciliation, liberation and repatriation must be accomplished by the best possible means.