Battle for the future of Hamas is in full flow

The loss of cash from the PA and Qatar marks a fork in the road: will the Gaza outfit turn to Iran or Egypt for help?

June 19, 2017 15:06

Qatar has given no indication that it will quickly cave in to Saudi-led demands that it abandon its independent foreign policy. But one of them — that it stops supporting Hamas — is already having serious repercussions.

Qatar immediately expelled a number of Hamas leaders after the siege was announced, and the terrorist group just as quickly began sounding out its potential alternative backers: Iran and Egypt.

The implications for the road ahead, for both Hamas and the region, are monumental.

Gaza’s devastated economy — where unemployment is at 40 percent — relies almost entirely on Qatari largesse. The infrastructure projects Doha funds provide almost all employment outside the state sector. Elsewhere, the situation is dire.

At the insistence of the Palestinian Authority, furious at unpaid debts, the people of Gaza now receive only three hours of electricity a day. Riots over the power supply, as well as corruption and incompetence in the Hamas government, have become frequent.

The most logical step for a desperate, post-Qatar Hamas would be to re-embrace Egypt, the traditional Palestinian pawnbroker; and the signs at this juncture suggest it will. 
Before the Qatar crisis, Cairo had agreed to discuss selling fuel to Hamas to get Gaza’s sole power station back online. In turn, Hamas had agreed to secure the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where an affiliate of Daesh has been leading a ferocious insurgency.

Egypt cut ties with Hamas following the election of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, after accusing the Gaza movement of allowing Daesh fighters to cross into its territory to source logistical and military support.

Yesterday, more good news came from Cairo when Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas’s deputy leader, dismissed speculation that the group would start a war with Israel to deflect attention from its domestic problems. Meanwhile, other Hamas officials confirmed that relations with Egypt continue to improve.

In return for Egypt offering more concessions like opening the Rafah crossing and securing substantial funds from the Gulf monarchies, Hamas would have to reject all Qatari and Iranian assistance, as well as renounce its ultimate goal of destroying the Jewish state. 

And that, of course, is exactly where Hamas’s other suitor, Iran, comes in.

After Qatar expelled the Hamas leaders and Iran established an air bridge to Doha, flying in shipments of food, there were unconfirmed reports that Hamas had moved its office to from Doha to Tehran — the worst possible outcome for Israel, its Sunni allies and the United States.

Iran shut out Hamas in 2012 after the Gaza group aligned itself with Sunni rebels seeking to overthrow Tehran’s Shia ally in Syria.

For Hamas hardliners, though, Iran and Hezbollah have always been their closest ideological partners.

One crucial benefit of shifting to Iran is that while financial aid from Qatar is closely monitored and mostly benefits the economy, cash from Iran is cynically diverted to military projects. 

Tehran is believed to have played a crucial role in helping Hamas produce rockets domestically, thousands of which have been fired at the Jewish state. 

Since worst-case scenarios are, more often than not, the outcome of military and political initiatives in the Middle East, the possibility that Gaza’s leadership might pivot back to Iran should not be dismissed out of hand as the Qatar crisis continues indefinitely and the battle between Hamas hardliners and relative moderates intensifies.

John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East

June 19, 2017 15:06

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