Is there a new Hamas in the making, one ready to put down its arms and live in peace with Israel? Or is it the same old Islamist movement putting on the airs of moderation as it abandons its old friends Syria and Iran and makes new ones in Egypt, Turkey and Qatar?
Anyone following the movement's latest steps has a lot of evidence on which to base their pick.
On the one hand, Hamas has resumed talks about ending its four-year split with the more moderate Fatah movement and joining the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). On the other hand, Hamas took the opportunity of its 24th anniversary to emphasize its intention of staying the course of violence and the denial of Israel's right to exist.
"Resistance is the way and it is the strategic choice to liberate Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea and to remove the invaders from the blessed land of Palestine," the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the crowd, which chanted: "We will never recognize Israel."
The two Palestinian movements have been vowing to re-form their old national unity government since last spring, with little progress to show for it. But Palestinian sources told The Media Line that a significant rapprochement over the last four weeks has finally been made between Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by the Fatah movement.
The two held a Nov. 24 summit meeting in Cairo where they reportedly agreed on main three points: a Palestinian state will be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; non-violent resistance will be the tool for achieving this goal; and legislative and presidential elections will take place on May 4, 2012. The first point tacitly acknowledges Israel's right to exist and the second would align Hamas' strategy with that of Abbas, who is committed to seeking a negotiated peace with Israel.
Jane's Defence & Security Intelligence & Analysis was the first to report Hamas' acceptance to give up armed resistance.
At their latest summit Dec. 21, the two paved the way for Hamas to join the PLO, the Palestinian umbrella organization that to date has been dominated by the Fatah movement. Many observers took that as yet another signs that Hamas is moving to come closer to the Fatah position.
Hamas has good reasons to change its tune because the Arab Spring has shaken up the bold political order in the Middle East.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who has served as junior partner to Iran in an axis that includes Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbullah, has failed to quash a 9-month old rebellion and his prospects of staying in power are growing dimmer. Unlike Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas has refused to support Al-Assad publicly, which has reportedly angered Iran.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood - Hamas' progenitor - seem all but assured to be coming to power through ongoing elections. That means a government that will be friendlier to Hamas and more hostile to Israel than Egypt was under ousted President Husni Mubarak. Qatar and Turkey, two rising regional powers, are also trying to make their influence felt.
Mashaal, the chief of Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau, has already packed his bags and is looking for a new office in Cairo or the Qatari capital of Doha. But the change of headquarters and allies for Hamas comes at a price, namely that the movement adopt a more moderate stance
Hamas officials told The Media Line that the Muslim Brotherhood has urged them to cut their remaining ties with Iran because they threaten to alienate voters angry that Tehran has backed Al-Assad even as more than 5,000 Syrians have died. "Iran can't be pro-Bahrain Shiite revolution and anti the Syrian revolution," said a senior PA security source in Ramallah who spoke to TML on conditions of anonymity.
Hamas' military wing, the Izeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, counts 22,000 well-trained fighters armed with various kinds of small arms, and short- and medium-range surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. A PA military official in the West Bank told The Media Line that Hamas is going to keep its military wing and paramilitary groups to control security in Gaza--not necessary to fight Israel.
But publicly Hamas is not owning up to any change. Its foreign minister, Osama Hamdan, for instance told the Quds Press news agency that the decision to join the PLO leadership did not signal Hamas' acceptance of the peace process with Israel.
"Anyone who thinks Hamas has changed its stance and now accepts the PLO's defeatist political program is living in an illusion," Hamdan was quoted as saying. "Hamas cannot make the mistake of joining a process that has proved to be a failure over the past 20 years."
That is why some observers say Hamas leadership is adopting a Janus-faced strategy--one side directed to the West, Abbas and its new allies, which portrays the movement as renouncing armed resistance against Israel, and another directed toward its rank-and-file, asserting that it will stick to armed resistance.
Hani Al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, said Hamas' current strategy is simply a continuation of a line it adopted as early as 2003, namely to effectively suspend violence against Israel but never admit to it in order to keep the fires burning-both among its followers and in Israel.
"Hamas learned from Abbas' mistake when he abandoned armed resistance and adopted negotiations as the sole method to overcome the conflict with Israel. It didn't work," said Al-Masri told The Media Line, a reference to the fact that talks between the two sides have stalled for close to three years.
With Islamists winning elections in Egypt and Tunisia, Hamas has its eyes set on an election win next May against Fatah, he said. But a victory at the polls will do it little good if its leadership isn't accepted by the U.S. and other Western powers.
"Hamas' adoption of the non-violent resistance … is a message for the West that it hopes its rule in Palestine will be accepted if it wins in the coming May legislative and presidential elections," said Al-Masri. "Hamas' growing moderation is scaring Fatah. [because of] the growing power of the Islamists in the region confirmed."
In fact, Hamas itself may not know yet which way it will go. Senior Hamas sources told The Media Line that tough internal deliberations inside the movements, coalescing around Mashaal and his rival hardliner Mahmoud Zahar, have yet to lead to a final policy decision.
Zahar is unhappy with Mashaal's rapprochement with Abbas and with the idea of renouncing military resistance. The sources said that Mashaal is powerful enough to dictate policy but that he may face a bruising battle in internal Shura Council elections expected to take place in late February.
Netanyahu Warns Against Hamas Joining PLO
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Palestinians against allowing the Islamic Hamas movement to join the government.
Addressing the annual conference for Israeli ambassadors abroad, the Israeli leader said that his government would not hold any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority if the group, which has been deemed a terrorist group by the United States, joins the Palestinian government.
However, Netanyahu said that he would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas anywhere, anytime to renew negotiations.
Netanyahu's warning came less than a week after Abbas agreed to let Hamas join the Palestine Liberation Organization following his meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo.
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