With visit to Iran, Hamas thumbs nose at Palestinian reconciliation

With visit to Iran, Hamas thumbs nose at Palestinian reconciliation

Terror group signals it will never give up its weaponry, parades independence from Egypt with surprise Tehran trip

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Hamas then political leader Ismail Haniyeh delivers a speech in front of portraits of late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (left), and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right), at a rally in Tehran, February 11, 2012. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
Hamas then political leader Ismail Haniyeh delivers a speech in front of portraits of late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (left), and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right), at a rally in Tehran, February 11, 2012. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

At the outset of the current round of Palestinian reconciliation talks, Hamas appeared committed to working with Egypt to reach a deal to end 10 years of a bitter rivalry with Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority.

But then a senior delegation of officials from the terror organization took an unexpected visit to Iran, casting a shadow over the unity efforts.

When talks began, it seemed Hamas had taken a good look in the mirror — seen its international stance waning, and the territory it controls, the Gaza Strip, suffering from vast unemployment as well as crippling electric and water crises — and understood it had to make drastic changes to stay in power.

And there was the matter of Egypt. Cairo holds strong sway over Hamas, as it can partially remove the 11-year crippling blockade of the enclave, which would end years of limited travel and boost the Gazan economy. Hamas’s senior leadership is now also located in Gaza, so without Egypt’s consent, they can’t leave the Strip.

So whereas previous reconciliation attempts between Hamas and Fatah had failed, both Palestinian factions argued that perhaps with Egyptian help, real progress could be made.

This image was punctured over the weekend, when a senior Hamas delegation, which included group’s deputy political leader Salah al-Arouri, took an unexpected visit to Iran and publicized it on its official media.

Earlier this month, it was Arouri who personally signed a deal in Cairo to allow for the Palestinian Authority government to retake control of the Gaza Strip, under the watchful gaze of Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khalid Fawzi.

Two weeks later, Arouri was in Tehran, promising to “eliminate Israel,” and shaking hands with senior Iranian officials, who promised Iran’s support — including military aid — would continue to get stronger “day by day.”

On Monday, Hossein Sheikholeslam, an adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, told the Hamas-linked al-Shehab news site, “We will give Hamas anything it demands from Iran.”

Since the start of the reconciliation process, Hamas has said it would not give up control of its 25,000-strong military. At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not permit any weapons outside of his government’s control. This was an obstacle both sides agreed would not be dealt with during the initial stages of negotiations.

With its trip to Iran, Hamas is sending a message to the PA and to Egypt that it won’t be backing down.

It was also an obvious rejection of Israel’s requirement that Hamas cut ties with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (center right) meets with senior Hamas officials in Tehran on August 7, 2017. (screen capture)

Meanwhile, since Arouri’s trip to Tehran, Abbas and his deputies have made clear that, despite media reports to the contrary, they have not backed down on their demand to control all the weapons in Gaza.

“There won’t be any militias” in Gaza, Abbas declared on Monday, in an interview with the official Chinese news agency Xinhua. “This is what we mean by reconciliation and it’s what we’re working on,” he said.

Also on Monday, senior Abbas political aide Ahmad Majdalani elaborated on what Abbas meant by full control of the Strip during an interview on Palestine TV.

“We will impose our control in Gaza above and below ground,” he said, in an obvious reference to the many tunnels Hamas’s military wing had dug underground, some of them extending into Israel. The terror group used tunnels to infiltrate into the Jewish state during the 2014 summer war.

Hamas argues its weapons are necessary for “resistance” against Israel. Majdalani argued that if Hamas retains its weapons, “any faction can form a militia tomorrow, say ‘these are weapons of the resistance and you can’t touch them’…This is not a state,” he said.

Egypt has yet to comment on Hamas’s trip to Iran, though the pivot likely irked Cairo. On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reiterated that Cairo and Tehran are not on friendly terms.

Khaled Fawzi, center, head of the Egyptian Intelligence services, arrives with Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad, left, and Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri, right, before signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/ KHALED DESOUKI)

“Our relations with Iran have been severed for nearly forty years. We seek to reduce the existing tension and ensure the security of our brothers in the Gulf,” he said Monday night on France 24, referring to the conflict between Arab Gulf countries and Iran.

With full knowledge of the existing tensions between Cairo and Tehran, Hamas nonetheless chose to publicize its trip to Iran, underlining that it feels it can still operate independently of Egypt.

Abbas, in his interview with Xinhua, seemed to express his disapproval of Iranian meddling into internal Palestinian affairs, saying, “We want reconciliation, unity, and that no one will interfere in our internal affairs because we do not interfere in any else’s affairs.”

“We want that any assistance provided from any party in the world be given through the Palestinian Authority,” he added.

Speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani told the Hamas delegation over the weekend, “What matters is that the Palestinian factions put their differences aside and unite against the Zionist entity.”

But thanks to Iran’s promise to continue — and increase — backing to Hamas’s armed wing, Palestinian unity seems as unlikely as ever.

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