Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri announced on Sunday afternoon that the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and his government are prepared to resign as soon as a new Palestinian unity government is established.
Many in Israel and the Palestinian territories reacted to the declaration with skepticism in light of ill-fated previous reconciliation agreements between Hamas and Fatah.
Then, too, Hamas had made similar declarations, only to stop just short of vacating the government buildings.
But perhaps this time, after serving as prime minister for eight years, Haniyeh, and with him Hamas, are ready to give up the comforts of government for the sake of Palestinian unity in the short term… and ruling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the long run.
In the last few days, Hamas’s motives — in what superficially appears to be a capitulation to Fatah’s demands in reconciliation talks — have become clearer. For Israel, these motives are perhaps an even greater cause for concern than the reconciliation itself.
This latest Fatah-Hamas, it would appear, is not a political or tacticalmaneuver by the Islamist organization. Rather, it is a sophisticated strategic move involving quite a large gamble, taken with an understanding of the new reality of the Middle East. The gamble shows that Hamas understands that it can no longer rule the Gaza Strip on its own, and so has decided to give up the comforts of government – even if temporarily – in order to win over Palestinian public opinion. Eventually, it could win the parliamentary, and possibly even the presidential, elections and gain overall Palestinian primacy.
Within Hamas, plenty of voices have been heard in recent weeks objecting to the reconciliation process. However, the harsh reality in Gaza, and especially the movement’s faltering relations with Egypt, have raised grave fears that if Hamas does not give in willingly now, it might collapse financially or be ousted by its public.
The organization’s main source of income in Gaza, the network of smuggling tunnels, has been blocked for nearly a year now. Each month, Haniyeh’s government struggles to pay the salaries of its 40,000 officials, in addition to the salaries of thousands of Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades who are paid with nongovernmental funds.
On the ground, the organization has found itself embroiled in a conflict with Israel that leaves it little room to maneuver: While Hamas itself doesn’t want an escalation, there are plenty of Gazan militias that do. Hamas thus has to act as a sort of “border police,” employing hundreds of policemen to prevent rocket attacks toward Israel. However, every time the attacks recur, Israeli security forces strike Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’s reputation as a “resistance” movement, an organization dedicated to fighting Israel, has diminished in recent years, while the Islamic Jihad movement and radical Salafi organizations have been gaining popularity at its expense.
It would appear that Hamas has, for the most part, decided to follow in the footsteps of its Tunisian sister-party, en-Nahda. En-Nahda won the elections that took place after Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which heralded the start of the Arab Spring. However, the party struggled to cope with the challenges it faced, as well as the growing protest movement in the country. Eventually, it agreed to the formation of a nonpartisan government headed by a nonpartisan technocrat until new elections could be held.
At the time, the leader of en-Nahda, Rashid al-Ghannushi, explained that sometimes even a majority party has to step down for the sake of democracy and the greater good.
For Hamas, there is much at stake. Yes, the Palestinian public will embrace and appreciate its decision to step down. But no one can promise Hamas that it will win the next elections. And yet, the prospect of staying in power in Gaza doesn’t seem much more attractive: The organization is losing support in Gaza with each passing day, and many analysts believe that if elections were to be held today, Hamas would lose in Gaza by a wider margin than in the West Bank.
The party hopes that by the time elections are scheduled to take place, in just over six months, it will have succeeded in restoring its reputation and regaining popular support. And even if elections do not take place, the public will have seen who took a gamble for unity, and who thwarted it. In the meantime, Hamas will sit on the sidelines and observe the tremendous challenges Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have to cope with as the new prime minister as a unity government set to be established within the next five weeks.
Each month, Abbas will have to pay the salaries of those same Hamas officials, in addition to the 160,000 officials employed by the Palestinian Authority – a task which has become nigh impossible in light of the PA’s depleted coffers and Israel’s planned sanctions. If salaries are not paid on time, Hamas will direct all complaints to Abbas.
And what of Hamas’s militant wing? Will it cease to operate during this period between the establishment of the unity government and the scheduled elections six months later? Quite the contrary. Without the constraints of political participation, Izz al-Din al-Qassam will likely be freer to operate against both Israel and other movements. And should anyone – say, Israel – complain about that, Hamas will refer them to the new prime minister responsible for the West Bank and Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas.