Hamas is Making History by Reaching Out to Sunni Islam

News Abroad


Nimrod Hurvitz teaches at the Department of Middle East Studies in Ben Gurion University, and writes for the blog aggregate "canthink".

The Arab Spring, now entering its winter, is recasting Palestinian politics.  Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party, and Fatah, the historic Palestinian nationalist party, seem closer than ever to signing an agreement regarding an interim government and setting a date for elections.

Along with internal Palestinian changes, Hamas is also revaluating the nature of its struggle against Israel.  Hamas spokesman Tahir al-Nono has stated that the use of violence against Israel is not their preferred policy.  A similar comment was made by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who noted that Hamas will focus on popular resistance, and strive for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.  Both of them added the proviso that Hamas still reserves the right to use violence in self-defense.

Hamas's political reorientation came about after its leaders realized that their strategic allies are on the decline and new strategic forces are on the ascent. The Shiite axis, which has supported Hamas up until a few weeks ago and is made up of Iran, Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, is disintegrating.  Syria's despotic regime, which has hosted Hamas in Damascus for several years, is being brought down by mass demonstrations.  Iran is in dire economic and diplomatic straits, and Hizballah is disoriented. The alliance has run aground and Hamas leaders have decided to jump ship.

While the Shiite ship is sinking, a new and impressive ship has appeared on the horizon. The Sunni Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia are poised to rule their countries, and they have attained this enviable position through peaceful mass demonstrations and not through violence.  This achievement served as a wakeup call for Hamas leaders and has redirected their political orientation.  In fact, as Hamas is jumping ship, it is not jumping into the water.  Rather, it is fostering tighter relations with moderate Muslim countries.  Ismail Haniyeh, the disputed Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority and senior Hamas leader, is planning a diplomatic tour to Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar and Tunisia, all countries with closer ties to the West than, say, Iran.

Hamas is quick to learn, and the Arab Spring has many lessons to offer.  First, it is clear to anyone following Middle East politics that recent popular protest in Tunisia and Egypt has attained in a few weeks more than old Islamist tactics have achieved in decades.  Hamas leaders can also stand in awe at the determination of the Libyan and Syrian people, and conclude that at present, "people power" in the Middle East, is an epoch-changing force.

Second, it is clear that moderate Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda in Tunisia, are willing to cooperate with liberal and secular political parties.  For Hamas, this implies taking their reconciliation with the Fatah more seriously, and even paying a higher price in their negotiations.

Lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda have stated explicitly that they are interested in good relations with the West.  What is more, the Muslim Brotherhood have declared that they respect Egypt's past international agreements.  This means living alongside Israel in peace.

Hamas leaders realize that the new political approach that they are articulating has huge potential.  It will enable them to join the winning side of history.  They will become another player in the moderate Islamist team that is preparing itself to govern large parts of the Islamic world.  Yet it also requires far-reaching changes and painful concessions.  Cooperating with Fatah and living in peace alongside of Israel are two very high hurdles.  Clearly, it is a difficult political conversion, and it may generate tensions within the Hamas.

Having noted the changes within Hamas, we need not be starry-eyed.  Hamas has not fully relinquished the use of violence, and it is still hoarding weapons.  The potential agreement between them and Fatah looks more like a "marriage of convenience" than newly-found love.  In other words, they still need to prove their commitment to their spate of declarations.

But whereas Hamas is signaling change, Israel's leadership is recalcitrant.  In reaction to the development in the relations between the Hamas and Fatah, Israel's prime minister, Netanyahu, has repeated his refusal to speak with Fatah if they unite with Hamas.  It is unfortunate that while Israel's harshest enemy is scaling down violence and preparing itself for an historical shift, Israel's leaders are rehashing their old slogans.  This is not the time to discard diplomatic opportunities.  Rather, it is time to put such developments to the test and check if they can transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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