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Hamas: the power of weakness

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

Published: Updated:

Since the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, a series of articles in several Arab and international newspapers have called for the toppling of Hamas.

A few days ago, the Palestinian Authority Minister for Wakf Affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, issued a fatwa (Islamic edict) obliging Palestinians to revolt against Hamas and end its control over the Gaza Strip.

Habbash said that there were two ways of achieving this goal: either by achieving reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, or by revolting against the Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip.

The latest poll by Gallup showed that 74 percent of Palestinians doubt that permanent peace between Israel and Palestine will ever be achieved, with only 17 percent saying it will.

Dr Naser al-Tamimi

Some believe that the movement has lost political and economic leverage after the fall of Mursi, and the loss of its permanent headquarters in Damascus.

In particular, one article that drew my attention was written by Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. He wrote “The crisis plaguing Hamas is an opportunity to start a dialogue, which could put a dampener on the embattled group’s persistent interest in thwarting any attempt to achieve peace.”

Of course, one cannot underestimate the economic and political pressure faced by Hamas. But, I would argue that the Islamic movement will decline to accept the invitation of the Palestinian Authority to accomplish reconciliation, especially after the resumption of negotiations with Israel.

I also share the view that says increasing the economic pressure on Gaza is counterproductive and will strengthen Hamas’ hand. Last but not least, the so-called “Palestinian spring” against Hamas rule doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

Wait and see

Hamas will remain opposed to negotiations, but may not work to oppose it directly by military means. Hamas is fully aware that the majority of the Palestinian people are not enthusiastic about the negotiations.

The latest poll by Gallup showed that 74 percent of Palestinians doubt that permanent peace between Israel and Palestine will ever be achieved, with only 17 percent saying it will.

Indeed, the only thing that could convince the Palestinian people at this stage is the end of the occupation in all 1967 land, including East Jerusalem, the release of all Palestinian prisoners; solve the refugee issue, and generous programs for economic aid.

Hamas is betting that the negotiations will not achieve those goals. Even if the peace process succeeds, the solution cannot be implemented without the active participation of Hamas. However failure of the peace process could embolden the movement and other Islamists against Israel, but this time could be accompanied with the possibility of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Economic pressure could backfire

With the combination of increasing pressure from the Egyptian army on armed groups and the destruction of multiple tunnels, many economists suggest that Hamas lost a lot of its’ economic resources.

Those developments, if coupled with the American and European pressure on Qatar and Turkey to curtail their financial support for Hamas may ultimately lead to the collapse of its authority in Gaza.

At the very least, it could push Turkey to moderate policies towards Israel.

Ehud Yaari is an Israel-based Lafer international fellow of The Washington Institute and argues that “a serial loss of regional allies, serious financial difficulties, internal squabbling, and inability to build up its military capabilities have all weakened Hamas, leaving it vulnerable to potential unrest in Gaza.”

Certainly Hamas can not underestimate such pressures, however, tightening the siege on Gaza may backfire and strengthen Hamas’ grip, in addition to further radicalization of the Palestinian youth.

However, despite economic difficulties, Hamas will find adequate resources to support its activities in Gaza.

Furthermore, Hamas is convinced that the Egyptian authorities do not want the situation in the Gaza Strip to turn into a humanitarian disaster, as they alone would bear full responsibility.

Additionally, it is unlikely (at least in the short term) that both Qatar and Turkey would halt support for Hamas. Gaza gives both countries influence in the region, and works as a counter balance to the Iranian influence there.

In this context, Benedetta Berti a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University rightly warned that “attempting to engineer a coup in Gaza by financially pressuring Hamas is an extremely risky and misguided policy.”

That sentiment is echoed by Matthew Gould, the British ambassador to Israel. After his recent visit to Gaza, he stressed “by keeping Gaza’s economy deflated, by weakening Gaza’s traditional business leaders, and by forcing all trade to go through Hamas-controlled tunnels, we are not doing anything to strengthen Israel’s security. Rather, we are simply enriching Hamas and its allies.”

Dealing with Egypt

Hamas is also aware (and rightly so) that the Sinai’s crisis can not be solved by security alone.

As Amos Harel, the military correspondent and defense analyst for Haaretz explained: “It’s doubtful the military counter-offensive can stop Islamic violence for the long term, even though the Egyptian security forces’ performance in Sinai has improved in the past few months.”

Therefore, Hamas or other groups could exploit the situation to their advantage if the Egyptians continue seeking to isolate them.

This situation is unbearable and not in the interest of Egypt’s national security. It could undermine stability in the Sinai. Further instability could threaten Suez Canal shipping, which is vital for Egypt and the world economy.

Hamas has weathered change before and could forge a working relationship with whoever governed Egypt.

No doubt Hamas would prefer that the Mursi stayed in power, but it needs Egypt whoever the president.

Indeed, Egypt’s security concerns could allow Hamas to find common ground with the new regime in Egypt. As Hamas leader in Lebanon Ali Baraka summarised “Before President Mursi, Hamas had dealt with the Egyptian authorities for 24 years, and we will continue to deal with the Egyptian people and government irrespective of who is ruling Egypt.”

There is no denying that the Palestinian Islamic movement is standing at a crossroads, its policy directions are no longer easy, but the options of others, (Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan) are also limited.

In this context, one of the most valuable lessons learned by Hamas is that many things in the Arab countries change rapidly and in a dramatic way.

Here, perhaps Hamas’ best strategy will be guided by a simple Islamic saying: “patience is a remedy for every form of grief.”

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Dr. Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is also a regular contributor to Al Arabiya with particular research interest in energy politics and political economy of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Middle East-Asia relations. Dr. Naser al-Tamimi can be reached on Twitter: @ nasertamimi or Email: nasertamimi@hotmail.co.uk

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.