Hamas and a Palestinian Spring?

The “Arab Spring” brought hundreds of thousands of activists out into public plazas in the Middle East. Many of those activists have new foreign policy visions in mind - ones that worry both Israel and the U.S. - but so far few have acted to change the status quo. An established Islamist organization stands the best chance of making rhetoric reality. Hamas’ leaders are ideally positioned to accomplish this within the Palestinian political sphere. The Arab Spring has given the Islamist party – still proscribed as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU and the U.S. – the space in which to turn its military weakness into diplomatic strength.

Evoking the “Arab Spring,” Hamas’ outgoing leader Khaled Mashaal has announced the organization will now commit to popular protests to confront Israel. He has also announced that Hamas might be willing to be party to a two-state solution taking the pre-war 1967 borders between Israel and Jordan as starting points, reiterating a statement made earlier in 2011. At the same time, Hamas is also successfully pursuing membership in the PLO, and may yet reach a deal with Fatah to actually hold the long-deferred Palestinian legislative elections in May 2012.

As Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el argues, “Hamas and Fatah are reconciling - not because of Israel’s beaux yeux [how it will look], but because it is in the Palestinians’ interest, and new regional circumstances laid the groundwork for this to come about.”

The terrorist attacks in southern Israel this summer – possibly the work of Egyptian militants rather than Palestinians – provoked a plea for restraint from Hamas, which Israel held responsible for the attacks. Hamas understood that the volatile regional situation at the time – Egypt convulsing with further popular demonstrations, SCAF launching a counterinsurgency operation in the Sinai, Tel Aviv fuming at Ramallah – did not offer it an opportunity to use a military confrontation with Israel to its benefit.

It is premature to suggest, as Jane’s Intelligence Review has, that Hamas might be on “the brink of renouncing [all] armed resistance and moving to a policy of nonviolent resistance to Israel.” Mashaal is now preparing to step down from his post, reportedly to preempt a leadership struggle within the organization over his emphasis on demonstrations and the 1967 borders. And, Mashaal told the Associated Press “as long as there is an occupation on our land, we have the right to defend our land by all means, including military resistance.”

“Hamas … will lead the people towards uprising after uprising until all of Palestine is liberated,” Ismail Haniyeh boasted at a rally in December. The Gazan prime minister is indeed optimistic – at least in public – that the winds are blowing in his movement’s favor: “Gaza was a main reason for the Arab Spring. It was people’s anger at the regimes that co-operated with Israel and did not recognise the government here.” “Israel,” he told The Independent recently, “knows the strategic environment is changing.”

But for all Haniyeh’s bluster about new uprisings (intifadas), Hamas marked the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead without firing a shot in anger at Israel. Although it has continued to claim responsibility for attacks targeting Israelis in retaliation for deaths of Hamas members, since 2009, more and more attacks (which are declining in number, overall) seem to be being carried out by other groups, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees for Resistance. Hamas does not want to provoke a second Cast Lead.

Haniyeh’s intifada references unsettle Israelis. It seems, looking to Mashaal, that Hamas will increasingly try to evoke the nonviolent demonstrations of the First Intifada, and not the terrors of the Second, as protestors continue to take to the streets in Arab capitals. But, one suspects, Hamas will try to ensure that demonstrations are carefully organized.

Hamas’s public (and internal) debates over armed struggle suggest an internal debate not unlike the one take took place in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the early 1970s. After a series of riots in Northern Ireland in 1969 exposed the military weakness of the IRA, more militant voices in the Irish Republican camp split off to form the Provisional IRA, and (a few years later), the Irish National Liberation Army, both of which carried out bombings and assassinations for the next 29 years. The “Official IRA,” though not immediately giving up violence, pursued a ceasefire and subsequently focused more on political activism as “Official Sinn Féin.”

Like the IRA then, Hamas now has fewer military options than it did in 2008, or 2000. Several cells reportedly moving Gazan operatives and weapons into the West Bank in the fall of 2011 were arrested by Israeli and Palestinian security forces. And, as Uri Avnery suggests “By joining the PLO, he [Mashaal] is committing Hamas to the Oslo agreements and all the other official deals between Israel and the PLO.”

Tensions within Gaza complicate matters for Hamas: Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and the Popular Committees for Resistance are determined to continue their armed struggle. Yaakov Katz, the defense correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, believes that Iran, unhappy with Hamas’ lack of progress (and efforts to distance itself from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad) as of late is now funneling more support to Islamic Jihad. The Popular Committees, which Israel first blamed for the August attacks in southern Israel, could launch attacks that would lead to the IDF launching a full-scale operation against Gaza. There is strong pressure within Israel for doing so even in the absence of such actions by the Islamists: IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz regards Cast Lead as a success and, alongside several Israeli parliamentarians, wants to conduct “a major offensive” in Gaza to reinforce Cast Lead’s “deterrence” sooner rather than later. Writes Katz, “Benny Gantz has ordered the Southern Command to complete preparations for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip that could be launched within the near future.”

With Islamist successes in the region, it will be harder for Tel Aviv to marginalize Hamas. And with Israel reportedly refusing to give ground in East Jerusalem and the rest of West Bank over the settlements at talks in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority is increasingly losing patience. Israel might have the military initiative, but Hamas has a chance to secure the political one. Whether or not it formally pursues it depends on how the Gazan and Syrian headquarters of the movement - Mashaal has operated out of Damascus, while Haniyeh is based in Gaza - reach an intra-party accord on the matter. Mashaal’s statements have yet to be voted on by the Shura Council of Hamas, but a vote is expected within the coming months. Reconciliation with Fatah and integration into the PLO may depend on who replaces Mashaal. The regional winds may be conducive to Islamist ships, but Hamas has not yet decided how to sail into them.