How Hamas Lost the Arab Spring

After drifting away from Syria and Iran, the movement faces an uncertain future.

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Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal gives a speech during a rally marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, in Gaza City, on December 8, 2012. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is feuding with its former patron, Iran. Along with Hezbollah and Russia, Iran has stood squarely behind the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria while it slaughtered tens of thousands of Syrians over the last two years. Despite its own rather gruesome history of violence, the carnage was too much for Hamas. The group's external leadership deserted their longtime headquarters in Damascus last year and abandoned the Iranian "Axis of Resistance" in the process.

This apparently did not sit well with Iran's clerical regime. News reports indicate that Iran has drastically reduced its financial assistance to Hamas, which was said to be over $100 million a year, in recent months. While Hamas officials deny these reports, and Iran almost certainly continues to provide weaponry to the Palestinian faction, the relationship is unquestionably strained.

The Arab Spring years have been surprisingly unkind to Hamas. The falling out with Iran is just one example. The Islamist group has failed to benefit from the rise of other Islamist governments across the region. Instead, the faction finds itself at a strange inflection point, with more ideological allies but few true alliances.

That Hamas would be at this crossroads was unthinkable three years ago. The regional standing of the movement, born in the early days of the 1987 Palestinian intifada as a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group, was buoyed by the rise of the meteoric rise of various Brotherhood governments across the region. Hamas had already emerged victorious in the 2006 Palestinian elections, and in 2007 it subsequently became the government in the Gaza Strip after ousting the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. So when the Brotherhood ascended regionally in the wake of unrest of the Arab Spring, it seemed only natural that the de facto government of Gaza would seamlessly integrate into the new Middle East.

But Hamas' financial relationship with Iranian and Syrian patrons soon became a liability. The group found itself caught in a sectarian tug of war between its Shi'ite financiers (Iran is Shi'ite and Syria is a client state of Iran) and the new Sunni order (the Muslim Brotherhood is Sunni). Hamas's decision was soon made easier by Western sanctions against Iran for its illicit nuclear program, which ate into Iran's foreign exchange reserves and eroded the regime's ability to bankroll its proxies. Hamas then found itself in the decidedly awkward position of having an alliance with the Iranian-backed Alawite regime in Syria while Assad mowed down Sunnis and Palestinians, alike. Hamas pulled out of its Damascus headquarters in February of last year.

Hoping to realign with the new Sunni regional order, the movement dispatched senior figures to manage relationships with three powers strongly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood: Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar. Over time, this triumvirate has filled the void left by Iran.

Qatar, which is flush with cash, has contributed the most generously, and also takes the lead on construction projects in Gaza. Turkey is believed to have provided additional funds, while also building hospitals and mosques in the coastal enclave. It additionally sells a wide range of consumer products there. Egypt, which is drowning in debt, is unable to provide Hamas with funding, but the Morsi government has labored to bring Hamas out of isolation.

This new patronage arrangement is clearly reflected in the movement's recent leadership selection. Politburo chief Khaled Meshal, who used to work out of Damascus and managed the relationship with Iran, now works out of Doha, Qatar. Saleh al-Aruri, who is a rising star in Hamas and is in charge of the movement's operations in the West Bank, serves as Hamas's Turkey-based emissary. Veteran Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk, who serves as a media spokesman, is based in Cairo, Egypt. Additionally, the movement maintains leadership figures in Jordan, Lebanon, with still other leaders, such as Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the Hamas cabinet based in Gaza.

Of course, Hamas has always maintained leadership abroad. The movement is deliberately decentralized to ensure that Israel cannot decapitate its top leaders in one blow. But since the exodus from Damascus, its structure looks more like a diplomatic corps.

Meshal's leadership throughout all of this has been tenuous. In recent years, numerous reports have suggested he was prepared to step down . After all, he was responsible for managing ties with the Iranians and Syrians, and those ties had gone sour. But by April, the journeyman Hamas leader appeared to have found job stability in Doha, thanks to the movement's new financial lifeline there. He was reelected in April 2013 as politburo chief, but only after a protracted period of confusion surrounding the selection process, which reportedly took place in multiple locations such as TurkeySudan, and Egypt, and were postponed several times due to "technical issues."

Where Hamas is headed under Meshal's leadership is still unclear, however. He has repeatedly expressed his desire to join the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has long served as the political base for Hamas' domestic adversary, the Fatah faction. As Gaza-based political science professor Mkhaimar Abusada notes, "Meshal understands that in order for Hamas to become a legitimate entity, it must be part of the PLO."

But it is entirely unclear how this this appeals to a majority of Hamas' stakeholders. Joining hands with the PLO is antithetical to the movement's platform of resistance. After all, the PLO remains open to negotiations with Israel - something Hamas steadfastly rejects. Perhaps this is why, amidst the divorce from Iran and Syria, his former patrons heaped scorn on Meshal, calling him a Zionist, for good measure.

In the end, it appeared that Qatar had swayed the movement to maintain course with Meshal, which likely was more of a reflection on Qatar's financial influence than Meshal's political clout.

Turkey, for its part, seems less concerned with influencing Hamas decision-making. Instead, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has dedicated himself to breaking Hamas out of its political and economic isolation, and does so with frequency on the world stage. The Turkish-sponsored flotilla of 2010, which was designed to break Israel's blockade of Gaza but instead led to a conflict with Israeli commandos on the high seas, was a rather dramatic way of making his point. Erdoğan has since found less disruptive ways of advocating for the Palestinian Islamist faction. For example, Erdoğan famously told an American television audience last year, "I don't see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas is a political party."

In December 2011, Erdoğan was said to have "instructed the Ministry of Finance to allocate $300 million to be sent to Hamas' government in Gaza." Both Turkey and Hamas denied this, but Reuters and the Israeli Haaretz, published subsequent reports citing this financial relationship. Turkey, meanwhile, has undeniably bankrolled hospitals,mosques, and schools in Hamas-controlled Gaza, with additional funds intended to help Hamas rebuild its territory after the November 2012 war with Israel.

Hamas's relationship with Egypt, as it turns out, has been the most unpredictable. Following the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi in 2012, Hamas expected a "new era" of warm relations, as opposed to the movement's difficult ties with longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. However, relations over the last year have been strained. Most of the friction stems from violence in the Sinai Peninsula attributed to Gaza-based Salafi jihadist groups, not to mention Hamas' network of subterranean tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which allow Hamas to smuggle fuel and to potentially even carry out operations in Egypt. Hamas has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing, and has even threatened to sue the Egyptian publications that print them.

But it's hard to deny the "Cold War" between Hamas and Egypt's security services. Tensions ran high last year, when jihadists attacked an Egyptian military outpost in Rafah and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. Following the attack, Egyptian authorities closed down the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Egyptian authorities subsequently closed down 120 smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai, effectively shutting down Hamas' primary source of commerce with the outside world. Egypt continues to seize weapons and explosives in the Sinai believed to be destined for the Gaza Strip, including short-range rockets and antitank missiles. Egypt shuttered 23 smuggling tunnels in May alone.

The pressure from Egypt has forced Hamas to rethink its current resistance strategy. The primary purpose of these tunnels, when they were first created in the early years of the second intifada (2000-2005), was to transport rockets and mortars into the Gaza Strip. But the tunnels took on increased importance for Hamas after Israel erected the security barrier to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel. The tunnels became a lifeline for goods that the Israelis would not allow to cross. The tunnels became even more crucial after Hamas sacked the Gaza Strip and overran the Palestinian Authority in 2007, when Israel imposed an embargo on the coastal enclave. Tunnels are now Hamas' primary artery for many basic goods, not to mention a lucrative source of taxes for the Islamist movement-turned-government.

But as the tensions with Egypt increased over the Hamas tunnel network, the movement's leaders began to float an idea that appealed to nearly all of Gaza. Why not bring Gaza's economy above ground, with the help of Egypt? Plans are in the works for a company, owned by private Gaza businessmen, called the "Palestine Company for Free Trade Zone Area." The company would benefit Egypt, by allowing it to sell goods to some 1.8 million consumers in a way that would be taxable and therefore help its flat-lining economy. It would help Gaza by facilitating the free flow of goods for the first time in six years.

Of course, such a move would force Hamas to relinquish its weapons smuggling. By accepting such an arrangement, Hamas would be forced to renounce violence in deed, if not in word.

Such a decision would not rest with Meshal or any other of scattered members of the politburo in exile. Rather, it would rest entirely with the Gaza-based leadership, which is still the center of gravity for the movement. And it would likely be met with significant pushback.

After years of being described as pragmatic, the Gaza leadership has become increasingly militant. To be sure, Gaza has always been the operation base of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which serves as the "military" arm of the movement. But as Abusada observes, Hamas' leadership in Gaza now also includes, "figures who were released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap" -- a deal cut in 2011, when Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinians accused for terrorism for one kidnapped soldier. Abusada further notes, "Rawhi Mushtaha and Yahya al-Sinwar are two of the new top Hamas leaders in Gaza. Both are convicted of multiple murders."

This, in part, explains why the movement has not cut all ties with Iran. In September of last year, Hamas cofounder Mahmoud al-Zahar met with several senior Iranians in Tehran. As Zahar admitted, "nobody can ignore Iran's significance and important place in the Palestinian issue."

What Zahar did not admit was that Iran can also threaten the movement. Indeed, Iran can direct attacks against Egyptian interests in the Sinai, further jeopardizing the already rocky ties between Hamas and Cairo. It can rather easily arm, fund, or train some of Gaza's other terrorist groups -- including Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Hamas's leaders know they will pay a price if Iran directs a proxy attack on Israel, eliciting retaliations that could weaken their ability to govern Gaza.

As Abusada notes, "Any Israeli operation against Gaza will destabilize their government and their grip on Gaza. This is why they are holding onto the ceasefire."

For now, Hamas seems to have lost its appetite for conflict, indicating that the movement is in flux. A recent posting on its Arabic language website went so far as to appeal to the media to cease harping its internal divisions, insisting that it remained focused on defeating the "Zionist enemy."

All of this has prompted some observers to advocate for engagement with the movement and convince its leaders to renounce violence. But as long as Hamas's center of gravity is in Gaza, this is likely wishful thinking. As Abusada observes, "Hamas is in the process of transformation. 'Moderation' is not the right word here. But something is happening."