Hamas, in the conscience of the Arab masses, is a legitimate resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. Founded over two decades ago, in 1987, a number of questions and suspicions hovered around how and why it was founded within the framework of internal Palestinian political equations and the place of the traditional Palestinian resistance, the Fatah movement, within that framework. In all events, five years later, Fatah had renounced militant resistance and opted for the negotiating process, which culminated in the Oslo Accords of 1993, giving rise to Palestinian self-rule.
More than a decade before Hamas, the Islamic Jihad had carved its place on the resistance front by carrying out a number of operations in the occupied territories.
After a series of assassinations targeting some of its key leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Al-Rantissi, and with the rise of Khaled Meshal to the peak of the Hamas hierarchy, Hamas, too, performed a major shift away from its traditional behaviour as a resistance movement. It entered general elections. It then moved to seize control of Gaza and expel the Palestinian Authority (PA), succeeding in this in 2007, after a fierce battle with PA security forces under the command of Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan was reputedly the closest PA official to Israel and the US. Hamas may have been lured into similar outside allegiances when it began to engage in the game of regional power axes, siding with that supported by Iran and in favour of Qatar and Turkey.
Hamas triggered its first confrontation with Egypt when it aimed its guns from Gaza against the Egyptian soldier Ahmed Shaaban during the Palestinian storming of the Egyptian border at the time when Hamas was politically and administratively in control of Gaza. There were also increasing reports of intensified Hamas activity in Sinai, which it sought to turn into its operational backyard. According to the director of the Maqdis Centre for Strategic Studies, Samir Ghattas, since 2004 —even before Hamas seized control of Gaza —Hamas was suspected of involvement in all terrorist attacks in Sinai.
With the first Gaza war of 2008-09, Hamas drew closer to the Iran-Turkey-Qatar regional axis. Then, following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in 2011, the game plan changed. Perhaps even since the first spark of the 25 January Revolution, fingers of blame turned to Hamas for engineering the jailbreak operations during the security breakdown that enabled the escape of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood inmates. The matter is still before the Egyptian courts.
When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt in 2012, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who is acting president of Gaza, declared his movement’s allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to a Muslim Brotherhood source, Hamas is originally a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood with its own Supreme Guide (Sheikh Ahmed Yassin). With the declaration of allegiance, Hamas merged organisationally closer to its Egyptian parent, but retained its own office and its own budget. Effectively, it was generally autonomous, but enjoyed the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the relief organisations, syndicates and other bodies that the Brotherhood controlled. Hamas also had representatives in the International Muslim Brotherhood organisation.
The same Muslim Brotherhood source told Ahram Weekly that a similar process occurred with Sudan, where another Muslim Brotherhood is in power. When the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir declared that it was a duty to declare allegiance. The merger and subsequent Brotherhood leadership elections that took place in the office of the supreme guide sent an ominous message to the Egyptian people.
With the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule, Egyptian public opinion grew increasingly hostile toward Hamas, a trend supported by the outlook of the new authorities in the country, which had begun to regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation. The new authorities were not inclined to deal politically with Hamas —especially with the closeness that occurred in 2012 when soon-to-be ousted President Mohamed Morsi unexpectedly brokered a truce between Hamas and Israel at the time of Israeli attacks against Gaza in the autumn of that year. Egypt’s post-June 2013 authorities regard Hamas as responsible for the death of Egyptian soldiers in the first Rafah massacre. True, Hamas denied the charge. As Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar told the Ahram Weekly at the time, Hamas wanted to support Muslim Brotherhood rule, so it hardly made sense for it to inaugurate that era with a massacre of Egyptian soldiers. However, security sources reported that investigations strongly indicated that Hamas or individuals connected with Hamas carried out the attack. Perhaps the tunnels and Hamas’s admission of smuggling arms into Gaza via Sinai lent weight to suspicions.
The mutual recriminations between post-30 June Egypt and Hamas gradually began to increase. It was even suggested that Hamas leaders rejected an Egyptian truce initiative because they did not want to hand any leverage or credit to a government that regards their organisation as terrorist. There was also talk of Egyptian support for a Gaza-based “Tamarod”(Rebel) movement to bring down in Hamas along the lines of the movement that initiated the petition drive in Egypt that preceded the 30 June Revolution. Significantly, in terms of Cairo-Hamas relations, Egypt was not present in the picture in the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, even though it was Egypt that had originally fostered reconciliation talks and exerted years of effort to bridge the gap between the two sides.
Today, in spite of heavy and tragic losses, Hamas may succeed in deterring Israel and concluding a truce that both sides will respect. However, is this what is best for the Palestinian resistance? Mohammed Gumaa, a researcher on Palestinian affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, answers: “Abridging the Palestinian national project to Gaza, which is 16 per cent the size of the West Bank, is the disaster. The resistance in Gaza, whether in its Hamas or Jihad forms, cannot be cloned onto the West Bank. Therefore, the one-upmanship games surrounding the legitimacy of the Palestinian resistance are pointless as that legitimacy is beyond question. The problem is that some might imagine that what is happening is a victory that should be built on by supporting Gaza’s contact with the outside world. Effectively, this spells defeat for the resistance, disguised by a taste of victory, because reducing the Palestinian national project to Gaza constitutes a defeat for the Palestinian cause.”
Israel is bombarding Gaza mercilessly. It is deliberately targeting civilians in order to portray Hamas as ready to make innocent people pay the price for its policies. However, a number of sources outside Hamas maintain that the movement and, specifically, its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, are more popular while the fighting rages. Mohammed Ahmed Abu Shaar from the West Bank told the Weekly that the qualitative developments in resistance operations during this war have given the Palestinians a new appreciation for Hamas in terms of its military performance. He adds: “We are a people who die every day, whether as the result of the blockade or of Israeli tanks.”
Otherwise put, when Hamas plays the resistance role it wins popularity. When it acts in accordance with a political project based on equations involving Qatari, Turkish and Iranian bank transfers, it loses a lot.
*This story was first published at Ahram Weekly.