Will Hamas choose resistance or politics? It cannot have both.
When Hamas first decided to participate in the political process by introducing its own candidates in the 2006 Palestinian municipal and legislative elections, many in the movement’s ranks were filled with jubilation. Having dedicated years to resistance, social work and charity, they were certain to win the hearts of the people. And so it was, Hamas won the first and last election Palestinians held since 1996.
June 15 marks ten years since Hamas’ decisive victory in the violent confrontations that erupted after Fatah and the international community stymied its efforts to form a unified government. Hamas violently drove out political opponents in the months after the election and continues to suppress those who remain in Gaza whose allegiance is to Fatah, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO. The movement found itself increasingly isolated and, amidst a worsening financial crisis, unable to deliver on its campaign promise of “Change and Reform.” It became the subject of an intensified Israeli and Egyptian siege. And despite all proclamations of steadfastness and victory, Hamas has been unable to fend off repeated Israeli aggressions that have left the Gaza Strip in ruins. In a nutshell, in spite of the sense of jubilation that filled the air in 2006, Hamas’ gamble on electoral politics has proven to be a reckless miscalculation.
ALL POLITICS IS REGIONAL?
Too often, Hamas’ woes are attributed to regional dynamics. These include the intricate alliances of convenience and ideological fault lines between a dozen countries. However, these assessments are overstated and fail to capture the modus operandi of Hamas since its early days: indecision.
When the movement was founded in 1987, two features guided its functions. The first was defining Hamas solely as a resistance movement and only within Palestine. The second feature concerned its regional conduct, which maintained neutrality in the domestic affairs of regional countries so as not to alienate popular support abroad and to ensure it would remain welcome there. These features, however, diminished over the years as Hamas’ ranks grew and expanded beyond the Palestinian territories, compelling the movement to establish political and diplomatic relations with less than favorable regional regimes. Soon, Hamas appointed spokespeople and opened political bureaus in several countries, finding itself at the heart of a long battle for regional domination. Since then, Hamas has worked tirelessly to navigate regional landmines, particularly its relationship with two opposite camps, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran (not to speak of Gaza’s powerful neighbor, Egypt).
In the wake of a spiraling crisis in the Gulf between these two camps, observers have suggested two likely scenarios for Hamas: Either it would recalibrate its relationship with Iran through supporting Qatar and thus move farther away from the Saudi-led camp; or it would attempt to stay above the fray as it did previously when, for instance, it was expelled from Syria.
MEANWHILE IN GAZA
However, these scenarios fail to account for the fact that no regional alliance is capable of shielding Hamas from the powder keg of a largely frustrated two-million-strong population under its nose. No doubt, Hamas’ resistance may continue to be popular among some Palestinians in Gaza, but the glaring contradictions of its dual nature as a resistance and political movement can no longer be swept under the rug—certainly not when its high-ranking politicians are enjoying a comfortable, luxurious life in Gaza and abroad; not when the movement’s recent effort to revamp its archaic Charter went largely ignored; and not when it has become clear that Hamas would rather maintain its political status by combating the operations of other resistance groups at the behest of Israel.
Palestinians in Gaza are far less concerned with regional politics or ideological statements than with combating poverty, unemployment, the acute shortage of water, a massive sewage problem, and a severe energy shortage. Hamas should have learned this lesson the day it was handed the 2006 election by a Palestinian public frustrated with the regionally popular but locally incompetent and corrupt Fatah–PLO–PA triad. Hamas should also have learned that being both a political and a popular resistance movement is ultimately unsustainable. After all, the PA was created to facilitate a process designed to co-opt the resistance tendencies of the PLO.
TO RESIST OR NOT TO RESIST
The unfolding regional crisis in the Gulf will undoubtedly shape Hamas’ calculus for years to come. This is not the first time a Palestinian movement became too embroiled in the affairs of its neighbors. In the wake of the first Gulf War (1991), Palestinians paid a heavy price when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a policy that obliged approximately 200,000 Palestinians to leave Kuwait.
The result was Arafat’s failure to maintain popular regional support for resistance, which partly propelled the PLO further into the political sphere, ultimately signing away its resistance creed when the Oslo Accord became the official policy line.
Observers will continue to suggest likely scenarios for Hamas, but given its rejection of peacemaking, the movement does not have a political alternative, nor can it present one unless it addresses a fundamental question: Will Hamas choose resistance or politics? It cannot have both, and unless it chooses, the movement stands to become even more isolated and incapable of managing the brewing anger in Gaza, which could spell disaster for its leaders in the besieged strip.