Sunday, January 01, 2012

Avi Issacharoff's analysis of Hamas

One of the better political analysts in Israel, Avi Issacharoff, wrote an intriguing analysis in Ha'aretz yesterday about whether Hamas has really changed

Using information that is not readily available, the dynamics of the split between Hamas leadership in Damascus and Gaza, a topic I wrote about a few days ago:

The announcement of the new mode of struggle sparked a series of angry reactions by senior figures in Hamas' political wing in Gaza; they, who had been considered more pragmatic, perhaps even moderate in their approach, endorsed a much tougher approach than Meshal's. However, this was not a case of a conservative ideology flying in the face of the new line articulated by Meshal: What really irked the Gaza officials, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar and others, was that they were not consulted before the announcement of the new policy was made.

This also explains Egypt's invitation to Haniyeh to visit Cairo, where he hasn't set foot for five years (because the Egyptians forbade it ). Egyptian intelligence, which initiated the intra-Palestinian reconciliation and is close to achieving that goal, wants to avoid last-minute obstacles and surprises.

The new-old power struggles in the top ranks of Hamas between those who are "inside" and those who are "outside" Palestine signify the second, dramatic metamorphosis the organization has undergone in the past few months. The Hamas leadership abroad - those who are described as being ensconced in Damascus and Tehran - has lost some of its status (and also some of its assets ) in the wake of the palpable crisis it finds itself in vis-a-vis the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Politically, Meshal, his deputy Mousa Abu Marzook, senior official Izzat Rishak and their colleagues have been weakened, as compared to the weight of the Gaza group. The "outside" leaders are currently trying to find new premises to rent across the Arab world, after the organization decided to leave Syria (which in turn led to a decision by Iran to cut its aid to Hamas ); within just a few weeks, they lost their political, military and financial mainstays.

Still, Meshal remains the organization's "big boss." He did not hesitate this week to emphasize that the decision to switch to popular resistance was approved by all the senior officials of the organization, not by him alone. For those seeking clarifications of Haniyeh's reactions, Meshal's close aides have explained that the prime minister is above all apprehensive about losing his position. Haniyeh's anger probably intensified when he learned that for now, at least, Hamas does not intend to run a candidate in the Palestinian presidential elections next May.

The historical decision to modify the character of the Palestinian struggle - alongside Hamas' agreement to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (and in large measure to accept the written agreements with Israel ) - does not necessarily attest to a strategic shift in terms of goals. It's possible that Meshal and his aides realize that for now they need to forgo terrorist attacks in favor of new and more effective ways of achieving their goals: Indeed, Meshal and his colleagues admit that they have not completely abandoned the armed struggle and that they reserve the right to resist the Israeli occupation "using all means." Meshal also emphasized that Hamas does not intend to disarm or to stop the organization's huge arms buildup in Gaza.

Other fascinating findings, some of which we knew and some we didn't:
Indeed, Hamas' financial situation in recent months has become increasingly dire: Tehran has slashed cash payments to Gaza, and revenues from smuggling activity via the Strip's tunnels have fallen off, due to the lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza. The changed economic situation compelled Hamas to take a number of drastic steps, such as firing several hundred members of the organization's security apparatus in Gaza. (The official Hamas version states that 150 members of the security forces were dismissed on account of "moral problems." ) In addition, Hamas forces seized control of several bank branches (of the Palestine Bank and the Palestinian Islamic Bank ) in Gaza and "withdrew" money from them by force. The third step being taken to keep the Hamas coffers full is to raise taxes.

Hamas' ostensibly "clean" image is also not what it used to be: More and more senior figures in the movement have become entangled in corruption scandals, though these are rarely reported in the media. The most prominent person involved is Ayman Taha, one of the leaders of Hamas in the Strip, who was exiled to Cairo because of his involvement in one scandal, and continues to operate from there.

Of late, a few less-senior figures in Hamas - some of whom were suspected of corruption, and others of whom tried to report such affairs - have undergone peculiar accidents. For example, Ahmed al-Mamluk was killed two weeks ago, according to Hamas, "while carrying out a jihad mission." His family says he was supposed to be meeting with a senior Hamas official to discuss a number of corruption cases. A similar "accident" befell Ali Nayef al-Haj, who was killed in an "internal explosion" in November; Mohammed Zaki al-Hams, who died in a road accident in early November; Mohammed al-Mahamoum, who died last June from electrocution in a Hamas outpost; and Ashraf Faraj Abu Hana, who drowned in a swimming pool last March. Hamas says this is a chance series of accidents, but the families have radically different versions.

Another challenge faced by Hamas in recent months is the activity of Islamic Jihad. The fact that Hamas has been observing a cease-fire on the Israeli front has sparked considerable domestic criticism in Gaza, and many activists have recently left and joined Islamic Jihad. Amazingly, Jihad is able to spot the "rebels" and recruit them even from Hamas-controlled mosques. It seems safe to say that Hamas' new policy will only heighten such challenges and further weaken its ability to exercise full control over events in Gaza.

Issacharoff thinks that unity between Gaza and Fatah is likely, even as he acknowledges that security forces in each territory are arresting members of the other party and apparently trying to sabotage the process.

I think that Fatah will move at least as much towards Hamas and the other way around. In fact, on Saturday, Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said that in the coming year the PLO will effect a gradual reduction of the level of relations with Israel, leading to cutting ties altogether.

Hamas, meanwhile, continues its hardline rhetoric, with Haniyeh emphasizing that Hamas "will never recognize Israel at all" and calling for every Arab nation to build a "Jerusalem Army" to help fight for the Jewish capital.

So if they are going to unify - something I still think is unlikely - it will be because Fatah is more interested peace with Hamas than with Israel. And the possibility that Hamas will engineer a takeover of the PLO is not something to be dismissed lightly.