Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 May 2012
Issue No. 1098
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Meshaal tightens his grip

Recent internal elections in Hamas have greatly strengthened the hand of Khaled Meshaal, who but a few months ago was set to leave his position as Hamas head, writes Saleh Al-Naami

For over one month, internal elections were held in Hamas to choose the group's senior leadership, especially members of the politburo and the group's General Shura Council, which represents the group in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, diaspora and prisons. Members were also choosing representatives to branch Shura councils and leadership positions in various regions. The pressing question on the eve of elections was: how will the results affect the group's political and strategic choices in the coming phase, especially regarding resistance against occupation, reconciliation and other key issues? Also, what is the future of Khaled Meshaal's leadership of the group?

Contrary to general perception, the results bolstered Meshaal's position as head of the group's politburo and leader of Hamas. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the most important outcome was the re-election of Meshaal, which empowered his supporters in central and branch leadership positions. Surprisingly, the elections increased the number of Meshaal supporters in branch leadership institutions in the Gaza Strip, especially branch politburos.

This is a key development since some group leaders in Gaza deliberately challenged Meshaal's leadership over the past year, especially Mahmoud Al-Zahhar who rejected the political steps that Meshaal took -- such as agreeing to the principle of "peaceful resistance" and reaching a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Although Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was chosen as director of the group's branch politburo in Gaza, the composition of the new leadership of the branch bureau lends more weight to Meshaal.

The Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military arm that is close to Meshaal, were able to increase their gains in the recent elections. Ahmed Al-Jaafari and Marwan Eissa, two leading members of the Brigades in the Gaza Strip, won, as did Rawhi Mushtaha and Yehia Al-Senwar, who were freed as part of the last prisoners' exchange deal between Israel and Gaza. Both men are closer to the military wing than the political bodies of the group.

In fact, the new general Shura Council in the Gaza Strip includes a large number of freed prisoners who are loyal to Hamas's military wing, which played a key role in freeing them from prison. This also bolsters Meshaal's stature.

What truly boosts Meshaal's position, however, is that his supporters in the politburo in Gaza are charismatic leaders such as Al-Senwar and Mushtaha, who are very popular among Hamas grassroots supporters. Also, because his supporters in the politburo and General Shura Council are a cohesive camp, which is unmatched by another camp that has the same degree of cohesion.

Although both Haniyeh and Al-Zahhar have reservations about Meshaal's policies, the two also have disputes with each other, which means that public opposition to Meshaal will diminish. On the one hand, although it is not yet clear how the group's internal elections took place in the West Bank, because of special security conditions for Hamas there, specifically constant detentions by Israel of the group's leaders and members, it is certain that the results of these elections bolstered Meshaal's position. All Hamas leaders in the West Bank backed Meshaal when he announced that he reached the Doha Declaration with Abbas, although the deal was strongly criticised by Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. In fact, the influence of the West Bank in Hamas bodies is almost equal to the influence of Gaza, and therefore it is widely believed that West Bank representatives in Shura councils will support Meshaal.

Although sources assert that there is no candidate who can compete with Meshaal as leader of the politburo, the outcome of internal elections should enable him to continue heading the bureau with more support.

Observers agree that Meshaal's successes guarantee that he will impose his policies and positions on the group with very little internal resistance, including on two key issues. First, reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Meshaal, like the rest of Hamas leaders inside and abroad, knows well the foreign pressure on Abbas, especially by Israel, the US and some Arab countries, that inhibit efforts to end internal divisions. But at the same time, he believes that Hamas's interests would best be served by closing ranks since continued divisions drain Hamas politically, security-wise and financially.

Contrary to what Hamas leaders in Gaza believe, Meshaal views the price of Hamas monopolising power in Gaza as too high since it greatly hinders world recognition of the group and cooperation with Hamas. At the same time, it gives Israel a wide margin of manoeuvrability to launch military strikes against the group and its military wing in the Gaza Strip.

Although the Arab Spring clearly changed how some Arab states are dealing with the group, the majority of these countries still refuse to deal with the group or its government in Gaza. Meanwhile, Meshaal is very disturbed by the high financial burden of maintaining a government in Gaza headed by Haniyeh. The leadership of the group abroad is required to raise funds for the government and its services to function, which is a difficult task since funding for the group has diminished, especially after Iran stopped most of the funds going to Hamas after the group refused to support the Syrian regime's crackdown against its people. As politburo chief, Meshaal is responsible for securing funds for the group and knows well the challenges of having a government in power in Gaza.

Meshaal is required to demonstrate the highest degree of flexibility on all issues related to national reconciliation, although he is aware that his mission is almost impossible for the time being. Meshaal wants to prove to Arab states, especially those who espoused Arab revolutions, that his group is very flexible for the sake of ending divisions and hence these states would pressure Abbas to agree to Meshaal's proposals.

At the same time, Meshaal hopes that a better understanding of the group's positions by Arab states would increase official recognition of Hamas and expand relations to facilitate its integration in the nebulous Arab order taking shape in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Such a development would especially hinder Israel's ability to corner the group and strike it.

Second, since the outset, Meshaal was one of the leaders who opposed Hamas taking part in elections and forming a government since it would be very difficult for his group to combine governance and resistance. Meshaal believes that it's too early for Hamas to be in power and is harmed even further if it monopolises power, which is the case right now. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that in private conversations Meshaal asserts that having Hamas in power gives Israel a large cache of targets to attack whenever it pleases. He further believes that the 2008 war on Gaza is confirmation of this, since every institution affiliated with the Gaza government became a "legitimate" target for Israel.

Meanwhile, Meshaal and a large portion of Hamas leaders is beginning to feel the negative effects of Hamas being in power on relations with other Palestinian factions, especially the Islamic Jihad. Palestinian factions accusing Hamas of abandoning resistance in favour of staying in power, especially after it became apparent that Hamas does not quickly respond to attacks by Israel against the leaders and symbols of other factions -- which was apparent in the last confrontation -- because it fears that Israel would retaliate by targeting government institutions. Meshaal believes that a formula should be reached whereby the group can leave power in Gaza while maintaining the group's military strength.

Hamas leaders who disagree with Meshaal, especially Al-Zahhar and to a lesser degree Haniyeh, have become a minority in the group's leadership circles. This allows Meshaal to attempt to convince other Hamas leaders of the need to find an exit from the duality of resistance and governance with the least losses. He is further empowered by recent election results, although Meshaal's success also depends on the positions of other parties, especially the PA and Arab parties that influence Palestinian affairs, specifically Egypt.

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