The Palestinian terrorist group's leader Khaled Mishaal announced his resignation this week. What does this mean for the organization's future?
Top officials in Hamas have confirmed this week that the group's leader, Khaled Mishaal, has decided to resign his post. Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil tried to dismiss any suspicions of internal discord: "He has decided to retire to make room for the younger members." But Mishaal's decision belies significant shifts within the organization.
Mishaal has been the most visible and powerful advocate within Hamas for the group's reconciliation with Fatah, their political rivals who currently control the Palestinian Authority (and the West Bank). His strategic argument is that Hamas should use democratic elections to increase its power -- hopefully spreading their control to the West Bank and eventually taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization. As Mishaal told me when I interviewed him in 2007, "Not only Hamas but all the Palestinian people want to obtain their legitimate rights. If the peaceful road is able to do so, that is OK, and we prefer that. ... Resistance is not the end goal."
Convening elections, however, would require joining in a governing coalition with Fatah -- and thus sacrificing Hamas's control over Gaza. Mishaal sees that as a worthwhile sacrifice, particularly in light of the Arab Spring and broader trends in the region. He also sees a good opportunity to ally the Palestinian movement with other Muslim Brotherhood groups ascending to power across the region through the ballot box (rather than the Hamas's traditional tactic of armed resistance).
Mishaal's new strategy has been met by ardent resistance from other factions within Hamas, particularly those based in Gaza, who are loathe to surrender their hard-fought control over the territory (not to mention giving up their political posts and patronage networks). "They speak a lot about Fortress Gaza, the Citadel of Gaza," veteran Israeli journalist and Hamas expert Ehud Yaari told me today. "For them, protecting it has to be the basis of any future move." Yaari quotes Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh's assertion that "the shortest route to al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem]" runs through Gaza.
Hamas is already behaving as if Gaza is its own liberated state, particularly with the opening of its border to Egypt. Official Mahmoud Zahhar declared this week that "Gaza is free of occupation," boasting to the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency that economic conditions there are better than in the West Bank and that "contiguity with the outside world is easier as visitors from all over the world visited the coastal enclave." (Israeli settler leader Dani Dayan made a similar analysis in our conversation this summer, saying that Gaza is already as an independent state today, "whether [the Palestinians] call it a state or not" -- and if they did decide to declare independence there, "I don't think Israel will make any problems about that.")
While these Gaza-based leaders do wish to spread their control to the West Bank, they are patient -- a hallmark strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. They believe that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority will implode of its own accord, and they will be ready to pick up the pieces. As Zahhar said this week, "The resistance program [of Hamas], which was originally replaced by the [Palestinian Authority], is ready."
The first indication that Mishaal's influence -- and his ideas -- were waning in the organization came after the reconciliation agreement he negotiated with Fatah in Doha earlier this year. The Gaza-based leadership bluntly vetoed the deal, refusing to hold elections in Gaza or even allow Abbas to visit.