Hamas’ New Strategy

The movement’s new leadership has reached out to Hezbollah and Iran, and hopes to reconcile with Syria too

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By Abdel Bari Atwan

Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya as-Sinwar, held a candid two-hour meeting with a group of journalists on Monday in which he revealed the outlines of a new strategy for the movement. Its two main pillars are to take Hamas firmly back into the ‘axis of resistance’ and strengthen ties with Iran, and to try to ‘repair’ relations with Syria.

Sinwar acknowledged that Iran has been the main source of both funding and arms for the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, and expressed the hope that the Syrian would ‘unravel’, and, at the appropriate time, that this would ‘open the horizon to repairing relations’ with Damascus.

Sinwar’s imortance in the Hamas hierarchy stems from his very close relationship with the Qassam Brigades. He was one of the main founders of the movement’s military wing and is viewed as its mentor. He played an important organizational role in many of its operations inside Israel, taking part in some personally, and spent 23 years in Israeli jails.

His frank and unambiguous declaration that Iran is Qassam’s main backer was both forceful and unexpected. It ran counter in many ways to recent Hamas policy. The movement has hitherto avoided publicly acknowledging Iranian support for a variety of reasons: to appease the Arab Gulf states (and to some extent the US), to avoid embarrassing those elements of Hamas that adopted an anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian stance, and to mollify the Gulf religious establishment that views everything through purely confessional Sunni vs. Shiite eyes.

Hamas has already mended its relations with the Lebanese resistance, and specifically with Hezbollah, reliable sources confirm. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently received Saleh al-Arouri, head of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank and one of the strongest advocates of armed resistance within the movement’s leadership. Nasrallah then arranged for Arouri to meet Iranian political leaders and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, where he travelled as part of a delegation attending the inauguration of  President Hassan Rouhani last month.

Hamas has no problem with Hezbollah and Nasrallah. The latter has continued to treat The Palestinian organization as a movement of resistance to occupation, even when its former leadership sided with Hezbollah’s enemies on several regional fronts, most especially in Syria. Nevertheless, Hezbollah and its media outlets avoided saying anything negative about Hamas, as part of a longstanding policy of restraint by the party and its leadership on matters pertaining to the Palestinian cause.

The problem lies in Hamas’ relationship with the Syrian leadership. Ties between the two sides have been poisoned, and ‘repairing’ them will be no easy task, despite the best efforts of Hezbollah and the Iranian leadership to improve the climate.

Syrian leaders told Iranian and Hezbollah mediators who informed them that Hamas was wanted to mend fences with Damascus that they had no problem reconciling with the movement’s ‘new leadership’, and would allow it reopen its offices in Syria. But they insisted that the movement must adhere to its position and not revert to its previous behaviour.

Damascus feels betrayed by Hamas, which it hosted and supported for years only to see it opportunistically side with its regional adversaries after the start of the armed rebellion in the country. Senior Syrian officials privately narrate long lists of grievances against Hamas and its behaviour since 2011.

Nevertheless, it is likely that this bitterness is being overcome amid fast-moving developments on the ground that are giving Damascus the upper hand and prompting Turkey to rethink its strategy. Having spent years obsessing about the need to remove Bashar al-Asad from power, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has begun to sense that the real threat to his country comes not from Damascus, but from his US allies who stabbed him in the back by favouring the Kurds and their secessionist project over him and basing their regional strategy – at Israel’s recommendation – on them.

Against this backdrop, Hamas’ new leadership is playing its cards smartly. It has improved its relations with Egypt, and succeeded in exploiting the rivalries within Fatah between the Mahmoud Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan factions. At the same time, it has strengthened its relations with other Palestinian groups and managed to preserve a modicum of relations with Qatar without alienating the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

PA President Abbas, who cut the salaries of more than 60,000 PA employees in Gaza, forces 6,000 more into early retirement, and ceased paying for the Strip’s electricity in a bid bring Hamas to its knees, is now backing down from all or most of these measures. He is making his way for Turkey to urge it to mediate with Hamas and to revive the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreements reached years ago but never implemented.

The coming phase is that of Hamas’ military wing and of reverting to resistance and of reigniting it in the West Bank, the real arena of friction with the occupation state, its forces and its settlers. Its key figures are Arouri and Sinwar, who apart from being members of Hamas’ political bureau have strong ties with its military wing, and are leading its reorientation back towards Iran, Hezbollah, and perhaps Syria too.