Raining on Hamas’s parade

The current regional situation — and the weather — are pouring cold water on the Islamist rulers of Gaza. Does their path out of crisis lead back to Iran?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, stage an anti-Israel parade as part of the celebrations marking the first anniversary of Operation Pillar of Defense, on November 14, 2013. (Photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, stage an anti-Israel parade as part of the celebrations marking the first anniversary of Operation Pillar of Defense, on November 14, 2013. (Photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

On Saturday, Hamas was supposed to celebrate the 26th anniversary of its founding with the usual bells and whistles. The organization, created on December 14, 1987 at the later Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s house only five days after the outbreak of the first intifada, usually marks this day with extraordinarily large military parades.

But this year, the Hamas leadership decided to forego the celebrations and cancel the ceremonies.

The official explanation given to the Gazan public was that Hamas prefers to give money to the poor instead of wasting it on an event on this scale.

The unofficial explanation is that Hamas incurred significant public criticism following the military processions held on the anniversary of Operation Pillar of Defense last month — and wanted to avoid a repeat. At the time, Hamas celebrated the “victory” with parades of dozens of military vehicles around the city of Gaza and thousands of supporters.

Criticism was voiced then by residents, who asked how it was possible that Hamas had enough money to buy fuel for its vehicles for the festivities, even as it has been claiming that it was unable to buy gas for Gaza’s power stations, causing blackouts for 16 hours a day.

It is hard to grasp the monumental change that Hamas has undergone since it celebrated its 25th anniversary a year ago. Then, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, came to the Gaza Strip in order to mark the “great victory” over Israel in Pillar of Defense. Almost a half a million people went out to greet him during the main ceremony.

But a lot has happened since then: Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood allies were forced out of power, the Egyptian army managed to close most of the tunnels between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, and Hamas was officially designated a terrorist organization by Egypt — at least according to the indictment against ousted Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, whose trial begins soon. (The exact charge against Morsi is “cooperation with the terror organization Hamas.”)

After years of Hamas complaints about the terrible blockade of Gaza — when there was no such blockade — the Strip, including Hamas and its leadership, finds itself in recent months under a veritable siege, because of Egypt’s changed stance.

Up a creek with no paddle

“Because of the Jews’ stealing of Palestine, a miracle must be brought about through jihad…The spirit of jihad must be spread through the Umma, to combat the enemies and to join the ranks of the holy warriors” (Hamas Charter, Article 15, August 1988)

On Wednesday, the punishing rains reached Gaza as well. They worsened on Thursday and Friday. There were floods in almost every neighborhood in the small territory. One of the most common sights in recent days was the paddleboards with rescue personnel on them, moving between the houses to find the injured.

But the situation for residents living in “dry” houses wasn’t especially peachy either.

“We don’t have electricity for 16 hours a day and the cold is unbearable,” said A, who lives in Gaza City. “The children are at home because there are no classes at some of the schools, and the floodwaters are mixing with overflowing sewage. On top of that, there is the worsening poverty here and the lack of work,” he said Wednesday.

“You know, we have a joke here that it’s like Eden in Gaza. No one works here, truly a pleasure,” he added bitterly. “There is great bitterness here toward Hamas but also toward the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, toward Israel and Egypt.”

According to A, the frustration is not likely to lead to a revolution against Hamas. “That won’t happen here. Why? Because there are still a lot of people supporting Hamas. We feel besieged, in crisis, but we also understand Hamas’s crisis. They are still trying to work for the weak and the poor.”

The residents’ distress is one of the primary problems Hamas has to deal with these days. A lot of time has passed since Hamas was a small terrorist organization working to carry out suicide attacks. Today, it is a ruling entity that employs more than 50,000 people in Gaza and is responsible for paying their salaries (which were delayed again this month), as well as dealing with the residents’ daily problems. And as in the past, Hamas, as a political organization, cares about Palestinian public opinion in general and that of the Gazans in particular.

S, a well-known commentator living in Gaza, says that Hamas in many ways still holds on to its old ideology.

“There is no recognition of Israel. Resistance is mandatory. Its charter is still in effect, including the calls to jihad. But in reality, they are not acting on these slogans. They are not firing rockets into Israel and even stopping the Salafist groups who are trying to.”

According to S, the beginning of the change in Hamas came with its victory in the parliamentary elections in 2006. “From that moment, they became involved in managing the lives of Palestinians. In the June 2007 revolution in Gaza, they took over the Strip with force but received, to their displeasure, the exclusive responsibility of governing. Go explain to the Gazans why they don’t have electricity, no fuel, and no work. Their popularity is falling, as opposed to what they enjoyed immediately after Pillar of Defense, and they know it.”

S indicated that the reason for the current calm is that the Hamas leadership, with its drop in popularity and the worsening crisis in Gaza, knows that it is stuck in a minefield.

“Anywhere it turns it can cause even worse damage. It faces a bitter crisis with Iran and Syria, Egypt is in full confrontation with it, reconciliation with Fatah is growing less likely, and a fragile status quo is being maintained with Israel. No more, no less. This is what led to the understanding that it’s better for them to wait until something in the equation changes.”

The Imprisoned Brothers

“The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] is one of the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood movement is a global organization and is the largest Islamic organization in the new age” (Hamas Charter, Article 2)

The upheaval Hamas has experienced in the past year is mainly a product of the second Egyptian revolution. Within a few days at the end of June and the beginning of July this year, the movement lost its most important allies in the Middle East.

With the ouster of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas found itself dealing with a new reality it had not faced in even the worst days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The new military-led regime sees Hamas (perhaps rightly) as part of the political structure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and as a force to be fought.

The Egyptian security forces understood that one of the critical factors in restoring order to Sinai, while simultaneously striking Hamas’s income, was to close the tunnels between Gaza and the peninsula.

Egyptian intelligence obtained information that proved that the terrorist organizations operating in Sinai were training with and receiving military aid from terrorists in Gaza, some of whom were connected to Hamas (like Mumtaz Durmush from the “Islamic Army”).

In addition, the Egyptians understood that Hamas was not only ignoring the smuggling of militants and equipment to and from Sinai, but even taking the liberty of creating weapons depots on Egyptian soil with the knowledge that Israel would not dare attack them there.

This led to the Egyptian decision to initiate a wide-ranging military operation against the tunnels to close them almost entirely, while simultaneously operating to clear out the terrorist cells from the area.

And so, almost without warning, Hamas found itself in crisis. There was no way in or out of Gaza, not even for senior Hamas members and not even through the Rafah crossing.

The supply of fuel and building materials from Egypt stopped, creating the need to import more goods from Israel. Israel agreed to transfer large quantities of fuel into Gaza, but the Hamas government was unwilling to buy Israeli fuel at the going rate. Old allies Iran and Syria have turned their backs on the organization because of its desertion of Syria, leading to a halt in the transfer of weapons or money.

An Israeli official who has tracked Hamas for decades said that the organization has absorbed blows on several levels.

“They have trouble governing since they can’t pay salaries. They are struggling to find adequate military gear, and have begun making rockets and missiles locally. Ideologically, it is slowly becoming clear that the slogan the Muslim Brotherhood tried to spread across Arab states, that ‘Islam is the answer’, is empty. The strike at the ‘root’ of the movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, caused damage to the branches: Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and other places.”

One of the possibilities Hamas has besides the obvious (namely provoking an escalation with Israel) is to draw close again to Iran, and an overt reference was made this week to this possibility.

One of the organization’s heads in Gaza, Mahmoud a-Zahar, met with Gazan reporters and told them that Hamas renewed its contacts with Iran in light of the change in government there.

This still doesn’t change anything in relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who called Hamas “traitors.” But at least with Iran, Hamas leaders understand that if the US administration can talk to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, why can’t they?

read more: