Is Hamas Changing?

February 14, 2012
7:30 pm -

Event Description

A Conversation with Nathan Brown, Hussein Ibish, and Jonathan Schanzer

Hamas appears to be in limbo. With financial sanctions taking their toll on Iran, the long-time patron of the Palestinian terrorist group has reportedly been unable to keep the funds flowing. The group’s external leadership, formerly based in Damascus, is now looking for a new home in the wake of the violence in Syria.  Hamas has held meetings with other regional actors in Turkey, Egypt, and even Jordan, which ousted the group from Amman in 1999. In short, it appears Hamas is looking for new funds and a new home. In early February, Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement with the rival Fatah faction to create an interim unity government. Some analysts believe these developments are a sign that Hamas is willing to moderate, or to even embrace nonviolence. Others posit that the group is simply changing as a survival tactic, and that its core violent ideology remains the same. Either way, Hamas will continue to have a meaningful impact on the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

FDD was pleased to host Nathan Brown, Hussein Ibish, and Jonathan Schanzer, who tried to answer the question “Is Hamas Changing?”

Nathan Brown is a Nonresident Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focusing on Islamist movements, Palestinian politics, and Arab law and constitutionalism. Professor Brown teaches political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of four well-received books on Arab politics. His most recent book, Resuming Arab Palestine, looks at Palestinian society and governance after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). He is a regular contributor to many American and Middle Eastern publications, including Foreign Policy and The Atlantic. He is a monthly contributor to Al Hayat and a weekly columnist for Now Lebanon. Mr. Ibish, the former Washington Correspondent for the Daily Star (Beirut), is also a regular commentator on radio and television programs. His most recent book is What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal (ATFP. 2009).

Jonathan Schanzer is Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously worked as a terrorism finance analyst at the Department of the Treasury. Dr. Schanzer recently testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. In 2008, he published the book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, the only book on the market that analyzes the internecine conflict between the two most powerful Palestinian factions. Last year he published a monograph with FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz titled Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media

Rapporteur Notes

On Wednesday, February 15, 2012, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies hosted a breakfast discussion on the future of Hamas. The terrorist group faces increasing divergence between its external leadership, which was until recently based in Damascus, and its internal leadership, which governs the Gaza Strip and fought Israel there in 2008 and 2009. Participants were George Washington University professor and Carnegie Endowment non-resident senior associate Nathan Brown; American Task Force on Palestine senior research fellow Hussein Ibish; and Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president for research Jonathan Schanzer. FDD President Clifford D. May moderated the discussion.

Nathan Brown acknowledged that Hamas’ internal disagreements are increasingly coming out into the open, but explained that the group maintains a high level of discipline. “They argue all the time, but actual schisms are very rare,” he explained.

“I was recently in the living room of a prominent Hamas leader in the West Bank,” Brown continued. The leader insisted that Hamas make no accommodations with Israel as it pursues an Islamic state of Palestine. But once the leader stopped talking, his son said, “what my father is saying is absolutely correct from a religious point of view. However, from a political point of view, we accept the 1967 borders.”

Father and son then looked at each other and nodded approvingly. The movement, Brown explained, is thus “extremely broad, and very plastic.”

“How will we know if Hamas has actually changed?” Brown asked. In his view, it will either hold elections, or abandon its objections to negotiating with Israel. Neither is likely.

Hussein Ibish also began his remarks by stating the rhetorical question. “Is Hamas changing? The one-line answer is yes, but as little as humanly possible.”

Like most political figures, Hamas’ leaders “make pragmatic decisions and justify them later,” Ibish said, “but they are founded on a categorical and absolutist reading of reality.”

If Hamas bends to accommodate Israel, Ibish believes it would be “hard to keep people in the organization who are drawn to it by its absolutist nature.”

Hamas’ rivalry with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has not gone away either, he explained. “You can’t fit the square peg of refusal to recognize Israel into the round hole of the PLO and PA negotiating a two-state solution with Israel on the ground.”

Meanwhile, Ibish said, that the Arab Spring has deepened the sectarian challenges facing Hamas’ leaders. The external faction draws money, arms and training from Shiite regimes in Syria and Iran, but its internal leaders sympathize with the Sunni Islamist movements they see on the rise across the Middle East.

“This has made Hamas’ branding unsustainable,” Ibish said. “The notion that you can be, as Hamas was positioned, both a core Muslim Brotherhood party, part of the Sunni Arab Islamist movement, and a key member of the Iranian alliance…those days are over.”

“When the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria emerged as a core constituency of the uprising there,” he said, “…Hamas had to choose, and they could not have chosen to stick with Assad and Tehran and their old image. They had to choose their Sunni Islamist identity. So they had to relocate from Syria.”

The Iranians may nonetheless still have an interest in supporting Hamas, Ibish suggested. In view of the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Iranians might keep Hamas on the payroll, “to give at least the impression that they have another chip.”

As Hamas’ external leaders search for new homes, a number of regional actors are dallying with them.

“There’s a great deal of Qatari money at stake in this,” Ibish said, and the Qataris “have an extremely good opportunity” to exercise leverage over Hamas if they want to foster a reconciliation between its leaders on terms favorable to Doha and its allies.

External leader Khaled Meshaal and internal leader Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto prime minister of Gaza, met recently in Qatar, he noted, “and they were unable to resolve their differences.”

Hamas’ leaders won’t accept Israel’s existence or the Middle East Quartet’s principles if they can help it, Ibish concluded, but they may ultimately be pushed in that direction. “If the external leadership can secure things so that Hamas is aligned with Qatar, Jordan, or Egypt, they’ll have to behave very differently than [they did as] a client of Tehran and Damascus.”

Jonathan Schanzer pointed out that the existence of Hamas’ independent internal and external wings reflects the fact that the group has already splintered before.

“We’re now seeing some profound differences between the internal and external leadership,” Schanzer said. “Traditionally, the internal leadership was the more pragmatic of the two, particularly after it began to assume the responsibilities of a government.”

“There was a fear that they could suffer as a result of another Israeli incursion,” he continued. This insured that the internal leadership did not engage in adventurism, particularly after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009.

But with their Iranian and Syrian influence on the wane, Hamas’ external leaders are showing signs that they can be more flexible, Schanzer said.

“When you look at where the external leaders are thinking about going for new sponsorship,” he continued, “I think it’s very unlikely that they would be able to maintain the current level of radicalization.”

Hamas’ external leaders could go to Jordan, but “from my perspective, there’s zero chance of that happening,” Schanzer said. “The Hashemite regime needs to kowtow to the Islamic Action Front — the Muslim Brotherhood branch there — which threatens the regime on some level,” but it won’t go so far as to throw the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement out the window and allow an avowed terrorist group to exist on its soil.

“I also don’t believe for a second that the Qataris would allow Hamas to have a base there,” he continued. “There are huge amounts of American military investment in that country, and it’s critical for the country’s survival, especially at this dangerous moment.”

Describing the growing rifts in Hamas’ top ranks, Schanzer said, “There’s a crisis within the external leadership. They’re panicked.”

He further explained that the external leaders are “taking up homes and offices in Jordan and Egypt. [Senior Hamas leader] Mousa Abu Marzouk is already in Egypt. Literally, they are all over the map.”

In his view, Hamas’ recent announcement that it would form a unity government with Fatah signals weakness.

“After refusing to join hands with the PLO for 24 years, this is a sign, to a certain extent, of capitulation on their part,” Schanzer argued. Schanzer speculated that if these trends continue, Hamas’ external leadership may wither away.

But this will not mean that Hamas is becoming moderate, he warned, “The real bellwethers are the mid-level cadres, the men in their 20s who cut their teeth fighting the Israelis in 2008 and 2009,” he said. “They see this as the beginning of the Islamization of the Palestinian territories. I believe that ultimately this is the Hamas of the future.”

“Because external leadership is evaporating or becoming much weaker, at least in the short term, we’re seeing possible pragmatism,” Schanzer explained. But as a result of these Hamas cadres in Gaza, “long-term, we’re probably looking at a hardening” Of Hamas positions.

Schanzer assessed that Hamas’ calculations have thus far all proven to be miscalculations. “The fact that Hamas decided to overrun the Gaza strip in 2007, and is now finding it needs to kowtow to the PLO,” demonstrates that the group made a strategic mistake. Additionally, Hamas’ leaders made the “miscalculation of aligning with Iran, aligning with Syria,” Schanzer said.

“In 2004, when the Saudis began to cut off the funding” for Hamas, Schanzer concluded, “the group’s leaders made the shift toward this Iranian axis. Seven years later, they look back and that looks like an error. They’re now taking stock.”


Arab Politics Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics Syria