Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hamas feels the pinch

The revelation by Hamas’s military wing that it is holding four Israeli soldiers captive is crucial in its timing, indicating that Hamas cannot meet the demands for reconciliation with Fatah, writes Mohamed Gomaa

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On the surface there is no connection between the revival of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks in Doha and the announcement by the Ezz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, that it is holding four Israel prisoners. But a little digging into Hamas’s current state reveals that a connection does exist.

Hamas is in a dire predicament. One after the other, it has lost all its regional assets. Its relations with old allies (Tehran, Damascus, South Beirut) have floundered and are unlikely to recover soon. The Muslim Brotherhood, after a soaring ascent in several Arab countries, has plummeted to a shattering nadir, especially in Egypt.

Turkey and Qatar, currently Hamas’s most important regional allies, are undergoing a sharp decline in their regional profiles. They also have problems and priorities of their own, which have made their relationship with Hamas a mere detail that does not merit nearly as much attention as it once did.

In short, Hamas’ options are limited and tough.

 

THE REGIONAL PRESSURE POT: The revival of Hamas’ relationship with Egypt, in order to solve the dilemma of the sole land corridor linking Gaza to the outside world, is contingent on reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and on meeting a number of obligations.

True, the visit by the Hamas delegation to Cairo in March and its talks with Egyptian intelligence officials have largely dispelled the possibility that Cairo and others might brand Hamas as a terrorist organisation, as Saudi Arabia has just done with Hizbullah.

However, unless Hamas takes the step to declare a war on terrorism — by which is meant the groups and individuals connected with and supporting Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis — Cairo will continue to shut all doors and avenues to Hamas.

At the same time, “Turkish mediation” between Hamas and Israel on the question of the floating port faces numerous obstacles. Not least of these is that Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is rapidly mutating from a “model” state into a “rogue” state. In addition, Israel has succeeded in eliminating the “Palestinian question” from the agenda of Turkish-Israeli reconciliations.

Moreover, there are indications that Ankara — Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood’s most fervent regional champion — is on the verge of backing down on its third condition for normalising relations with Israel again: lifting the blockade on Gaza. It appears that Israel’s fulfilment of the first two — an apology and compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident — will suffice.

On top of this, any Turkish role in Gaza will inevitably run up against stiff Egyptian opposition and will defeat any hope of a normalisation in Hamas’s relations with Cairo. In fact, any “extraordinary” closer involvement of Ankara in Gaza is likely to anger Cairo, especially if it occurs through the agency of Tel Aviv’s assent to Erdogan’s request to “play some role” in the Strip.

In this regard, Israel is unlikely to risk its relationship with Egypt, especially at this time, when there have been significant developments in their bilateral security and strategic coordination in the war against terrorism in Sinai.

At another level, Hamas has tried to avoid paying the costs of the regional turmoil that followed the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It had held out hopes, for the longest time possible, for the “coup” that occurred (from the point of view of some) in the Saudi political mood when Riyadh launched operation “Storm of Resolve” against Yemen, and when it drew considerably closer to Doha and Ankara.

However, Hamas eventually realised that its investment in that “coup” was unlikely to pay off. Riyadh has been unable to convince Cairo to reconcile with Ankara and Doha (and, by extension, with the Muslim Brotherhood) and, given its preoccupation with raging regional crises, Riyadh has little time to spare for the Palestinian question and its subsidiary issues.

Today, after more than a year since the launch of Storm of Resolve and despite ongoing and closer Saudi-Turkish cooperation on Syria, Cairo continues to adhere to a position on that crisis that does not mesh with the Saudi line. But it is clear that the strategic alliance between Riyadh and Cairo, which was sketched out many months ago, has become a tangible reality, rendering it difficult to play both ends against the middle.

This does not apply solely to Hamas. The Turkish leadership, which worked to strengthen its ties with Riyadh and simultaneously did all it could to drive a wedge between Cairo and Riyadh, has no choice but to accept the facts. Riyadh will not risk losing Egypt for Turkey’s sake. Moreover, at some point Ankara may have to take some steps to thaw relations with Egypt in order to stay in the Saudis’ good graces.

In this context, the question of the Muslim Brotherhood is a minor detail. The Saudi kingdom may be satisfied with its revived relations with the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the framework of the war against the Houthis, while leaving the “mother organisation” prey to elements that will consign it to oblivion. Such is the conduct of nations in the pursuit of their most important interests.

Moreover, the relationship between the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood can hardly be termed a “Catholic marriage”. Even at its best, it has never been more than a “marriage of convenience” with light and easily dissolvable obligations.

In brief, closer ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Turkey and Israel, on the other hand, can only mean one thing for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood: a narrowing margin of manoeuvrability.

 

THE POW CARD: Against such a broader and intricate regional context, with its innumerable variables and shifting alliances, and in light of current Palestinian and regional calculations, reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in Ramallah has become the “last resort” or the “compulsory route” for Hamas to emerge from its predicament in Gaza.

This means that Hamas will have to swallow some bitter pills in the form of meeting the demands of the other side — something it had long been reluctant to do, especially during the period of Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy in the region.

But at this point, precisely, enters the Qassam Brigade’s revelation that they are holding four Israeli soldiers. As to whether these captives are alive or dead, and what state they are in, in either case, Hamas has revealed nothing as yet (the Brigades demand a price in exchange for any information they divulge, considering it one of their negotiating rights).

But the critical question in this context is timing. Hamas desperately needs to repair its image and strengthen its position, whether at the level of Palestinian public opinion, which yearns to resolve the prisoners question, or at the regional and international levels. How else can we explain the Brigades/Hamas’s silence regarding the four Israeli POWs for almost two full years?

Clearly, Hamas is not ready to meet the demands of the reconciliation process. It has therefore opted for a two-pronged strategy: it will keep the door to the reconciliation process open as a precautionary measure in the event that its POW card does not pay off, locally in terms of its image in Palestine and regionally, as it is bargaining on the fact that eventual Egyptian mediation in the POW matter will simultaneously repair relations between Hamas and Cairo. We should note, here, that it is to Hamas’ advantage to protract the period of dialogue with Fatah until the presumed “deal” with Israel appears.

Perhaps Hamas, with its strategy of keeping all doors slightly ajar while trying to balance so many contradictions, is best likened to a circus juggler riding a monocycle while trying to keep several balls up in the air at once.

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