Hamas Hedging its Bets in in the Region

Hamas seeks to improve ties with Saudi Arabia while preserving its pre-existing regional interlocutors, including Iran.

Caught between the stalled reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, the unending political rift with Fatah, and a dire financial crisis, Hamas is seeking a way out of its post-2014 war predicament. The organization has been investing in ending its international isolation by re-kindling regional relationships and regaining past and new sources of financial and political support. Hamas’s careful hedging strategy to repair the damage to its international ties has delivered only mixed results.

In Egypt, Hamas gained and then rapidly lost an ally by backing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The economic and political damage of its fallout with Egypt cannot be underestimated: the combination of crackdowns against Gaza’s underground tunnel economy, a buffer zone, and steady border restrictions have significantly complicated the already dire economic and humanitarian situation in the strip. Egypt’s regional status and its historic role and weight in inter-Palestinian affairs have ensured that Hamas—despite its deep objections to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s policies regarding Islamist groups in Egypt—has spent the past year attempting to do damage control. It has done so not only by repeatedly highlighting its interest in mending the relationship with Egypt, but also by stressing the group’s shared security concerns and commitment to curbing Salafi-jihadi groups, including self-proclaimed pro-Islamic State ones, operating in Gaza. To date, only modest results have been achieved, such as Egypt partially softening its anti-Hamas rhetoric—also thanks to some Saudi intercession.

Yet a major change in Egyptian policy does not seem to be in the cards. The Rafah crossing was open merely eighteen days between January and July 2015, and despite the four-day opening in August, the small steps taken by Egypt are hardly a revision of its policy of isolating Gaza. The mistrust is reciprocal. Hamas reacted to the news that four members of the group’s armed wing had been mysteriously kidnapped in Sinai in late August, allegedly by an IS-affiliated group, with a mix of dismay and doubt, criticizing Egypt for not doing enough to solve the hostage crisis.

Hamas’s fallout with Egypt is even more significant given the Palestinian group’s unresolved tensions with Iran. In the past two years, Iranian funding to Gaza has undoubtedly diminished, and the repeatedly rumored visit by Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal to Tehran has yet to take place. Restoring a working relationship with Iran reveals the potentially contradicting interests Hamas is pursuing. Remaining in good terms with the Iranians is especially important to the group’s armed wing, aware of the Islamic Republic’s not-so-easily replaceable military support. Yet Hamas’s broader regional foreign policy strategy—including its re-engagement with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s stances on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen—make it impossible to go back to the warm pre-2011 strategic alliance with Tehran.

Indeed, Hamas’s interest in preserving ties with Tehran is weighted against the group’s efforts to restore its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which drifted away from Hamas following the group’s conflict with Fatah in 2007. In 2015, the internal leadership change in Saudi Arabia under King Salman and Hamas’s external outreached efforts have led to a steady yet gradual rapprochement between the two parties. The culmination of this process was the July 2015 high-profile delegation Meshaal led to Riyadh. Yet the portrayal of these meetings as a “strategic shift” away from Iran is largely exaggerated. It is true that Saudi Arabia is today closer to Hamas than it had ever been since 2007; but still Riyadh went out of its way to officially deny any change in its Gaza policy, affirming that Hamas’s visit to Saudi Arabia was religious and not political. However, Saudi Arabia has definitely shown increased interest in brokering some level of understanding between Hamas and Egypt; and its renewed contacts may lead the country to step up its financial support for Hamas as part of its efforts to solidify its regional camp.

For its part, Hamas largely seeks to improve ties with Saudi Arabia while preserving its pre-existing regional interlocutors, including Iran. And following the same regional hedging strategy, Hamas also remains invested in Doha and Ankara, while mindful that the countries’ political backing and financial support—though important—are no substitute for that of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s political support for Hamas has been to some extent overstated; its financial backing for the Gaza Strip has been constant but also falls substantially short of its own pledges. Yet even with these limitations, Qatar remains an incredibly important diplomatic base and informal broker for Hamas, which has time and again gone out of its way to praise Qatar’s role in the Palestinian arena in general and in Gaza specifically. Similarly, Hamas has been very appreciative of Turkey’s diplomatic backing, its efforts to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, and its relatively open door policy in hostingmembers of the group.

Hamas hopes to leverage these relations to break its international isolation and maximize its diplomatic, political, and economic support. Ankara, Doha, Riyadh, and (to a lesser extent) Cairo are part of Hamas’s shuttle diplomacy, a careful rebalancing of the group’s foreign policy that has so far delivered at least a modest improvement in Hamas’s regional standing. For their part, each of these regional players—albeit for different reasons and with a different sense of urgency—is interested in tackling not just intra-Palestinian reconciliation but also engaging in a long-term conversation with Hamas over reaching a prolonged ceasefire with Israel. Despite the lack of a direct dialogue or a mutually agreed framework, virtually all the main regional stakeholders (including former Quartet Envoy Tony Blair in an individual capacity) have been interested in advancing different frameworks that could lead to longer-lasting calm between Hamas and Israel. This renewed international attention toward brokering an informal understanding and in reconstructing Gaza is itself a positive development. But success is difficult without a cohesive regional strategy, and Egypt and Israel have made minimal policy changes with respect to Hamas and Gaza. Failure to achieve a breakthrough on Gaza is conversely going to put further pressure on Hamas—especially as the situation in the strip becomes even less sustainable—increasing the chances of yet another round of conflict.

In this context of uncertainty, it certainly makes sense for Hamas to continue in its proactive hedging strategy and to avoiding being trapped in the region’s increasingly polarized politics and having to choose between Tehran and Riyadh. Picking sides would also further stir internal conflict within Hamas. Although pursuing relations with Riyadh, Cairo, Doha, and Ankara boosts Hamas’s political and diplomatic profile, these governments are unlikely to support the group’s armed wing. So any attempt by Hamas to disengage completely from Iran would also upset the already fragile internal equilibrium between political and military leaders. Balancing between Tehran and Riyadh reflects the group’s larger efforts to meet the interests of both Hamas’s Gaza-based political leaders and its military wing. Yet in the future, if regional politics continue to become more divided and polarized, Hamas may find it harder to keep this balance. In this sense, Hamas’s choice of regional partners today could be consequential for the group’s overall strategy and internal cohesion in the long term, potentially altering the balance between its political and military objectives.

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada. It can be accessed online here.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a TED 2015 Fellow, and the author of Armed Political Organizations. She is a regular contributor to Sada.

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