Is Hamas coming to the Old Arab Order’s rescue?

Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 12-19 June 2015

Zvi Bar’el, writing in Haaretz somewhat provocatively insists,

“It’s hard to explain how the gossip columnists have missed the love story of the year: Israel and Hamas are back together … Now Hamas may again get the role of coming to Israel’s rescue. Thanks to Hamas, Israel can avoid entering into peace talks and at a cheap price, because when it comes to Hamas, there is no need to talk about evacuating settlements or withdrawing from territory. Hamas won’t turn to the International Criminal Court, the expanding boycott of Israel doesn’t affect it one way or another, and more generally, Hamas isn’t at all excited about any kind of peace agreement with Israel. Hamas and Gaza will get quiet and in return, Israel can declare that there is finally quiet in Gaza — and no urgency in advancing the peace process”.

Well, maybe: Israel of course will be a prime beneficiary, yes. But actually Hamas is riding more to the rescue of the region’s emirs, Kings and autocrats – rather than just Israel.

It is customary these days, to aver that the present upheaval in the Arab world has nothing to do with Israel (and certainly, Israelis are somewhat smug about asserting just this); but this is not wholly true.  The reason Sunni Islam is in the crisis it is today (see last Weekly Comment), has very much to do with Israel – although the roots to Sunni Islam’s crisis reach further back than 1948: It is rather the story of the slow decline, decomposition and discrediting of the old Ottoman élites, who were shoe-horned into the new ‘nation-state’ set-up, inked-out on the map, by Messers Sykes and Picot, after the Great War. 

Kings and rulers they might have been in this new set-up, but the Ottoman lineage in itself, by the time of the Sykes-Picot era, gave little or no inherent credibility – and any social contract between ruler and ruled, was simply unavailable, precisely because the colonial powers engineered these new nation-states so that their rulers would always be vulnerable to confessional, ethnic or tribal schisms; and therefore have continued need for support from the colonial powers. These post-Ottoman rulers had little choice. They ruled repressively and violently.  There never was a social contract to be had.

But the crisis which truly broke the Arab élites was 1948 and 1967: the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic). It was a monumental defeat, which seared the consciousness of all Arabs. The slide of the Arab leadership, triggered by such an unmitigated humiliation, has continued until now, when the unravelling has begun to resemble more its death throes.

In their weakness, most of the region’s leaders have clung to the so-called ‘Peace Process’ – as if it were their life-boat.  It gave them just enough ‘cover’ – upholding the Palestinian cause – to keep their ‘streets’ controlled, and enabled their finger-nail hold on power to continue.

But today that ‘cover’ is gone (removed by PM Netanyahu’s campaign remarks about never permitting a Palestinian state), and by President Obama’s consequent distancing the US from the lifeboat ‘process’.  This lack of any ‘peace process’ cover potentially exposes regional leaders’ hypocracy – unless, that is – they can have quiet. 

So the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt want quiet in Palestine, as they concentrate on their own survival in troubled times.  The last thing they want is their people roiled and mobilised by the television images depicting another Gaza war.  In any case, Gulf leaders have other ‘fish to fry’ — ousting President Assad, and halting the US rapprochement with Iran — for which they rely on Israel’s help, both in the region and in Washington. They certainly do not want any Palestinian flare-up to spoil things.

Thus, as Bar’el notes:

“… the dream is already being worked out: a tahdiya, a long-term cease-fire of five or maybe even 10 years, the opening of the Gaza border crossings for incoming construction materials, the construction of a port and perhaps permission to operate an airport. What could be better than such a marriage of convenience, particularly now that Egypt has given Hamas, although not its military wing, its stamp of approval. “We need to talk to Hamas,” a lot of people are saying. Such remarks are being carefully directed, calling for talks with Hamas and not the Palestinians in general; not Mahmoud Abbas and not the Palestinian Authority that he heads. After all, they are not partners to anything”.

Amos Harel, another Haaretz journalist notes that “officially, Israel regards Hamas as an enemy, holds it entirely responsible for every attack from Gaza and responds harshly to every instance of fire. But practically speaking, its policy is the opposite”. Rather, Harel argues, Israel sees reasons why it might be more convenient for Israel to reach indirect, general understandings with Hamas, which will not bind Netanyahu to political concessions (as long as he does not publicly concede that he has, de facto, recognized Hamas as a partner.) This is the background for the increased activity in the area by Qatari representatives [emphasis added], who are not dealing only with the economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip”.

A senior Hamas leader, Osama Hamdan, has confirmed that the movement has received a “written proposal” for a long-term (five year) truce (tahdiya) with Israel, and might indeed submit a formal answer to imminently.  So it seems that Hamas is ready for it too, as Hamas struggles to crush a nascent Salafist rebellion, and survive amidst a collapsed economy and the region-wide assault on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abu Mazen has reacted to the prospect of a tahdiya by threatening to resign (for the umpteenth time). Peter Beinart in another Haaretz article, The Era of Iran is over: the Era of BDS Begins, makes it precisely clear what Israel is worried about – and why Abu Mazen is upset: the Israelis are getting really, really worried about BDS.  They want quiet in Gaza in order to try to pull the BDS ground from under Abu Mazen’s feet.

What else is going on here?  Well, firstly, Saudi’s implacable hostility towards the MB and Hamas has quietened with the death of King Abdullah.  Saudi Arabia has modified its view of the MB from being one of total hostility to one of general skepticism, mitigated by a willingness to ally with the movement in certain circumstances – Yemen is a particular example, where Saudi Arabia is arming and supporting Al-Islah in its conflict with Ansar-Allah.  Egypt too grudgingly has modified its earlier hostility, under pressures from its allies.

So Hamas is moving towards Israel and at the same time is rescuing the post Ottoman Arab ‘system’ from their 1948 and 1967-inflicted Achilles heel.  Hamas will give them their quiet – and Qatar will rebuild Gaza.

At one level, one might argue that this is simply Hamas pragmatism. The movement had in recent years lost all its patrons (and at a time when the plight of Gazans was at its nadir).  Quite simply, it needs the cash. The chance to ‘re-set’ with Riyadh, on the succession of a new Saudi King must have seemed an opportunity which could not be ignored – and it seems that the Salman ‘nod’ will allow the Qataris to resume their benevolence toward Gaza and Hamas. (It was only months ago that Qatar was facing GCC political sanctions for its sponsorship of Hamas … how times change.)

At another level however, were one to stand back from immediate events, another pattern seems evident. Not so long ago (2006), Hamas was purely a liberation movement.  It stood for ending the occupation, and restoring the rights of Palestinians. Simply that. But then it allowed itself to be pulled into Syrian politics by (then) PM Erdogan. Perceived in Damascus to have sided with Erdogan’s initial soft power-play to bring the MB to power in Damascus, Hamas’ progressive engagement and partiality in the Syria conflict eventually came to the point where armed Hamas fighters were directly confronting Hizbullah on the battlefield (at al-Qusayr). Recall that it was Hizbullah and its Lebanese forerunners that had offered such generous hospitality and support to their Palestinian brothers-in-arms, when the latter had been expelled from Jordan.

Hamas had become partial in the Syrian conflict in which Palestine had no direct stake (but much to lose: i.e. its core support base). Hizbullah became participants in the conflict from a different basis: initially because Lebanon had its citizens straddling the Syrian border and under attack (there are Shi’i Lebanese villages in Syria), and subsequently, as Lebanon gradually became a strategic depth to the Syrian conflict. 

But from this point – the Syrian conflict – we have seen Hamas (and the MB more generally) become incrementally more politically partial – now directly supporting the Saudi aerial bombing of Yemen. Indeed, the MB branch in Yemen (Al-Islah) is directly fighting Ansar Allah, in open alliance with al-Qae’da – and receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia. 

The polarization of the region into two camps is an unfortunate fact, and it may be argued that Hamas and the MB could not be expected to remain immune to it.  There is some truth to this, but the consequence of this major movement allowing itself to be at least partially assimilated into a Wahhabist-led campaign to undermine Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, has changed the character of the movement – and introduced contradictions – which make it hard to know now, that for which it now stands.

In Gaza, Hamas members are fighting the Salafists. In Yemen and Syria, they are fighting alongside the Salafists. Is Hamas a resistance movement or a local administration? Has then the Mosul-Anbar experiment in administration become somehow a model; or is it repudiated?  For what, exactly, does this significant movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, stand today?  It is hard to know.  Do they themselves know?

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