In an area where international and regional affairs are now often one and the same, the local dimension no longer plays a sole major role in managing events and developments. This applies to relationships as much as anything, and has been manifested in more than one case on more than one level.
When talking about managing the foreign affairs of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, we can apply the same concept. It has been trying lately to rebuild fragmented relations and regain allies it has lost. At the same time, it is trying to maintain what is left of the few close relationships it has with decision-making capitals in the Middle East.
Interests and principles
Over the past few years, Hamas has been experiencing a new phase in its regional and international relations that sometimes forces it to take political positions that may not be agreed upon within the movement, for ideological or intellectual reasons. This reveals occasional contradictions between its political, religious and military sectors. Although not necessarily a negative indicator, the fact that it happens regularly means that greater control and harmony are required, even though Hamas seems to possess policies and procedures capable of controlling its membership in a manner coincidental with the approaches of its political leadership.
The differences I am referring to include a number of influential components, along with its military, political and religious aspects. It seems that they all propose logical positions, which may not be seen as such by the other components. However, the movement has tried to adopt various positions in order to gain political benefits from external parties, which has also caused it to be criticised from within occasionally.
Examples of such events were the bombings in Beirut and Paris last November, for which Daesh claimed responsibility. Hamas condemned the attacks because it rejects terrorism against innocent civilians, the likes of which the Palestinians themselves are suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation.
That was the position put out by Hamas in the media. Internally, moreover, some of its Islamic scholars came up with reasons why such attacks might have taken place. This included asking some important questions: Why did France join the international alliance to attack Muslims in Syria and why did it kill hundreds of Syrians? Why did Hezbollah send its ground forces into Syria to besiege Syrian civilians?
The most remarkable development in the movement’s recent positions followed Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah militia official Samir Qantar in Damascus last December. Hamas condemned the Israeli assassination with a brief statement, and then its military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, issued a statement praising Qantar. This was an exaggeration according to some within Hamas religious circles, and violated the movement’s usual position. Some of its supporters ask Hamas not to oblige Iran (which backs Hezbollah), despite the fact that the relationship between Hamas and Tehran has not been at its best since their differences over the conflict in Syria surfaced in 2012. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has still not visited the Iranian capital.
There wasn’t much of a consensus within Hamas over its condolences for Qantar. He was a controversial figure who created a stir on social media due to his involvement in oppressing the Syrian people. Hence, Hamas decided to base its statement about his assassination on the fact that he was in an Israeli prison for 30 years and that the movement had no detailed information about his activities in Syria. It insisted that, in any case, criticism of its statement was to be expected given that people are entitled to have different opinions.
A number of other events then occurred which put pressure on Hamas, including the assassination in Damascus of Jaysh Al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush, also in December. While the movement remained silent regarding the event, it issued an unofficial condolence statement on behalf of “Hamas members in Syria”. The leadership did not comment on this statement and neither confirmed nor denied that it had been issued.
It is clear that there is a lot of space to manoeuvre within Hamas’s political, religious and military discourse, although the leadership uses mainly political discourse. However, some of the movement’s opponents accuse it of manipulating religious texts to serve its political interests. It is worth noting that most of its political decision-makers have a religious background as well as academic degrees in politics, so the politicians do not need to refer to religious scholars for their approval of every minor detail.
Like most political movements with ideological references, Hamas is experiencing a conflict between interests and principles; which has priority? This, among other things, is revealed in the position on the demands of the international quartet. The movement would have gained many benefits from responding positively to the demands; the Gaza siege could have been lifted, for example, and it would be welcome in a number of world capitals. However, Hamas continues to refuse to recognise Israel and it has paid the price for its principled stance by suffering the siege on Gaza since 2006, as well as three fierce wars waged by Israel against the Palestinians in the enclave in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
Regionally, there are some who believe that Hamas could have remained under the wing of the Syrian regime, even while it killed its own citizens with explosive barrels. Hamas, though, was not able to overlook this and support — even tacitly — the regime’s violence. Hence, it adopted a morally superior and ideological approach and left Syria in February 2012, despite Iran’s threat that it would stop its financial support for the movement if it did so. Differing opinions on the Syria decision existed within Hamas, between political expediency and ideology.
As far as relations with Iran are concerned, in recent months there have been those within Hamas who believe that the price for distancing itself from the government in Tehran has been too high and has deprived it of essential financial and military resources in besieged Gaza. It is easy to conclude that Iran’s support for Hamas allowed it to withstand the siege between 2006 and 2011.
Those within Hamas who support rapprochement with Iran and the restoration of ties argue that after the split the movement was unable to compensate for the resultant shortages that hit all of its activities, despite ongoing links with other regional capitals, which usually provided limited and conditional support. This has effectively forced Hamas to go back to Iran, while maintaining its different positions on events and developments in the region.
Those within Hamas who have reservations about rapprochement with Iran believe that the Tehran of 2016 is not the same as that of 2006, not least because Hamas has not been the hoped-for Iranian proxy in the region. On the contrary, Hamas has maintained its independence in its decisions, so it cannot expect the same level of support from Iran in the future.
In addition, Iran’s involvement in wars across the Middle East— in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — puts Hamas in an unenviable position as it gets closer to the government in Tehran. Decision-makers there will be keen to cite rapprochement with Hamas in an attempt to whitewash its darker activities in the region. Hamas, though, does not have the luxury of time to answer the question of who will benefit more, itself or Iran.
Mobilisation and justification
An analytical reading of many of Hamas’s political positions shows that the movement prioritises principles over interests. This was evident in the events in Egypt, starting with the January 2011 Revolution, the election of President Mohamed Morsi and his ousting in a military coup, even though individuals at various levels within the movement consider interests above principles and act accordingly; statements on social media tend to confirm this.
Hamas’s use of political rather than ideological discourse in some decision-making may make it win friends regionally and internationally given its pragmatic political actions, despite the fact that when it faces difficult crises internally and externally it reverts to religious support for its activities and pronouncements. In times of relative political ease and lack of pressure, meanwhile, the pragmatic political elites are called in. Although that is accepted as normal in political movements based on doctrine, Hamas reinforces it political positions, on the domestic Palestinian front or externally in the conflict with Israel, by referring to religious texts. This elicits criticism from its opponents from time to time.
Finally, a detailed review of statements made by Hamas over time indicates that it uses political terms on some occasions, ideological terms on other occasions, and occasionally combines both, depending on the situation. No one can predict how the movement will present a specific position on a specific event. This brings us back to the original question: What takes priority in its statements and positions — the political, the ideological or the military? Hamas may not like this question but its political experience suggests that it has managed to get the balance about right, with one aspect or another taking priority depending on needs and circumstances.
Translated from Aljazeera net, 5 March, 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.