The Arab Spring has deprived the group of its longtime patrons and empowered its enemy at home. Can they adapt?
Members of al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas movement, at a news conference in Gaza / Reuters
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One of the most enduring epithets for Hamas, right up there with "terrorist," is "proxy." If you Google "Hamas Iran proxy," you get 1,750,000 hits. The idea that the relationship between Sunni Hamas, the Gaza affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shia Iran was merely a marriage of convenience and not a true love match is rejected by those who forget that most enduring maxim of Middle East politics: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." And implicit in that maxim are two more words: "for now."
This conventional wisdom is due for a makeover. On January 17, a Ha'aretz headline announced "Hamas brutally assaults Shi'a worshippers in Gaza." The article reported that Hamas fears "growing Iranian influence in Gaza." But for years, we have been told that it is Hamas itself that represents Iranian influence in Gaza. What gives?
Further down in the article, the picture begins to make sense when we read that Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) members in Gaza are "converting" to Shiism. For Hamas, the "Arab spring" does not lead to a "summer of roses and wine" (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan). A day later Khaled Meshal, the head of the organization, still based in Damascus, unexpectedly announced his resignation. The regional picture is changing, and Hamas is trying to catch up.
For years, Hamas, Syria and Hezbollah, all "proxies" of Iran, have been seen as Iran's vanguard in threatening Israel. But with President Bashar al-Assad fighting for survival against a Syrian popular uprising, of which Syria's majority Sunnis are an integral part, Hamas could not continue its close relationship with Syria. To Assad's intense anger, Hamas has declined to support him against his people. Reportedly, Meshal remained in Damascus only under immense Iranian pressure. Meanwhile, Hamas activists are streaming out of the city, and it is a good bet that Meshal's successor, yet to be chosen, won't be based there. The recent thaw between Jordan and Hamas leads to speculation he might be in Amman. Jordan can under no circumstances be turned into a base for attacks on Israel, but it would be an excellent venue for a change of policy as well as of leadership.
Already, Hamas has softened its image--and seemingly its political stance as well. It announced on December 29 it was ceasing attacks against Israel (but not renouncing violence). In the wake of the deal that freed Gilad Shalit and over one thousand Palestinians, it is also renewing its dormant "reconciliation" with Fatah.