Reality behind Hamas Leadership Issues

Ibrahim Abdel Karim: Reality behind Hamas Leadership Issues

  • 19 February 2012

Although Hamas has emerged as Fatah’s main rival and has started playing a leading role in Palestinian affairs, recent differences among its leaders have raised questions about the movement’s internal situation.

To understand the apparent ‘leadership issues’ within Hamas, it is important to refer to the history of its internal deliberations and dynamics, starting from the time of its inception to the present stage. As stated in its charter, Hamas considers itself to be an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has maintained its presence in Palestine since 1947. It was only in 1987 that Hamas was established as a resistance movement against Israeli occupation, following the ‘Islamic Congregation’ convened by Sheikh Yassin in the Gaza Strip. Even then, traditions and procedures of the Muslim Brotherhood have governed the way Hamas conducts its leadership matters, wherein differences among leaders of the movement are resolved in private.

However, the origins of the current leadership issues can be traced back to 1996, when Khaled Meshaal first became the chairman of the movement’s political bureau. Meshaal had succeeded Mousa Abu Marzook, after the latter’s arrest in the United States and subsequent deportation to Jordan. For a variety of reasons, Marzook had expressed his unwillingness to contest for the chairmanship of the political bureau again. By the dint of his leadership qualities and political acumen, Meshaal was elected chairman for two successive four-year terms, in accordance with the movement’s internal regulations. Then in 2008, the movement’s consultative council amended the term of his office by lifting the ceiling on the number of terms a person could hold the office as chairman of the political bureau.

It is interesting to note that at that point in time the question of leadership was not a major concern for Hamas. In fact, after the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009, holding the position of leadership in Hamas was considered more of a ‘responsibility’ than a ‘privilege.’ Everybody was supposed to abide by the decisions of the movement’s institutions, regardless of their personal considerations. Since the summer of last year, however, things started to change and signs emerged that Meshaal’s position in Hamas was becoming ‘problematic.’

While celebrating ‘reconciliation’ with Fatah in May 2011, Meshaal granted the Palestinian Authority on a ‘grace’ period to negotiate with Israel. But that very day, one of Hamas’ leaders in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, publicly criticized Meshaal’s decision as being individualistic, wrong and at variance with the position of Hamas and its institutions. The clampdown from the Damascus-based leadership was swift and effective. However, unease among some of the movement’s leaders continued when it was reported that Meshaal was using a ‘new language’ in the Cairo reconciliation meetings, using phrases like ‘political partnership,’ ‘popular struggle,’ and ‘the establishment of a state based on 1967 borders.’

Despite Meshaal’s reassurances that Hamas would remain committed to its strategic program of armed resistance to defeat the Israeli occupation and to liberate the whole of Palestine, Hamas leaders in Palestinian Territories started questioning the ‘new concepts’ introduced in the movement’s strategy. For instance, Al-Zahar contended that popular resistance was meaningless in Gaza Strip as the occupiers had left the territory and there was nobody to demonstrate against. On the other hand, he believed it was appropriate to employ all kinds of resistance in the West Bank, including armed resistance. It even seemed that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the dismissed cabinet, was in agreement with Al-Zahar’s hard-line position.

The situation became more complicated when reports started appearing that the movement was shifting away from its policy of armed struggle in favor of a non-violent and popular resistance tack. There were also reports that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had secretly requested Hamas to stop its militant activities and resort to political means in order to calm the situation.

In the wake of these developments, Hamas issued a surprising statement on January 21, 2012, stating that Khalid Meshaal had informed its consultative council that he was not willing to be re-nominated as chairman of the political bureau at the upcoming session of the organization. However, the leaders of the movement expressed the hope that Meshaal would reconsider his decision and leave the matter to the consultative council and to its assessment of the movement’s larger interests.

The news stirred up a new wave of speculation. One view was that with this move Meshaal actually wanted to leave the door open for his re-nomination, by involving the consultative council in the process, the only authorized body to select names for the position. In the same context, it was claimed that the rules did not permit Meshaal to run for a new term and that his declaration was meant to put an end to any future speculation in this regard. It also pre-empted another statement that was to be issued by his deputy Mousa Abu Marzook. There were even predictions that Hamas was about to follow the leadership framework of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), wherein Meshaal would assume the position of Chairman of the Palestinian National Council, in line with the organizational structure followed by Fatah. There was also speculation that Meshaal’s statement was influenced by the rapid changes taking place in the region and reflected Hamas’ intention to revive its leadership with new blood.

Close on the heels of this controversy came the Doha Agreement on February 5, 2012, when the premiership of the interim Palestinian government was handed over to the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. Although the new agreement opened the way for reconciliation, it drew conflicting responses from the Hamas leadership, which again brought out in the open its simmering internal discontent.

The ‘Change and Reform’ bloc of Hamas in Gaza issued a so-called ‘legal memorandum’ against the agreement, as it claimed that the assumption of positions of both the President and the Prime Minister by Abbas was a ‘violation of the constitution.’ This memorandum was a new blow to Meshaal’s leadership and an unprecedented embarrassment for Hamas which has long boasted of following internal consensus in its decisions. On the other hand, representatives of the Hamas ‘Change and Reform’ bloc in the West Bank endorsed the Doha Agreement.

The apparent ‘polarization’ in the leadership of Hamas is also evident from the rapidity of Meshaal’s alignment with the so-called moderate Arab axis and the weakening of his relations with Damascus, which stands in stark contrast to Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Tehran. Some Hamas leaders believe that the recent rise of Islamist forces in the region increases Hamas’ weight vis-à-vis Fatah, while Meshaal thinks that the time has come for harmony rather than confrontation, which can be brought about by introducing carefully drawn amendments to its policies.

With deepening differences in the stated positions of the movement’s leaders, reported attempts to hold a meeting between Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal in Doha on February 12, 2012, to resolve the internal crisis proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the general sense is that a split in the movement is quite unlikely, and the formula of “diversity within unity” is taking root (akin to the “distribution of roles” arrangement), allowing the reported competition for the position of chairmanship of the political bureau between Khaled Meshaal on one side and Abu Marzook, Haniyeh and Al-Zahar on the other.

An assessment of the ‘balance of powers,’ within the movement’s institutions, shows that the winds have turned against Meshaal, for organizational and political reasons. It is believed that Meshaal is now left with two options: either abandon the leadership of the movement quietly or contest again as a candidate. Most observers believe that Meshaal would win in the elections but with a slender majority, still some claim that the veteran leader may not get elected for the next term as he will now be faced with an upsurge in internal discontent, stirred up by his new political approach and his ‘maneuvers’ to continue as leader of the movement.

On the other hand, many think that the movement’s consultative council, which has the right to choose the chairman of the political bureau from among the regional heads—those likely to garner maximum votes in forthcoming elections for the leadership of Hamas next summer—will seek to avoid a leadership problem for the movement, particularly in the midst of Palestinian reconciliation, the formation of an interim unity government, intensified efforts toward the holding of forthcoming legislative elections, and abstaining from putting forward a candidate for the presidency. This approach will also be in step with the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that has decided not to contest in the presidential elections and limit themselves to parliamentary elections. Therefore, the hidden battle for the leadership of Hamas has been decided in favor of Khaled Meshaal.

One important point remains, pertaining to the struggle between Hamas and Israel. In this respect, attention should be given to Hamas’ readiness to reach peace with Israel based on the 1967 borders, taking into consideration the contacts being made at both the Arab and international levels for this purpose. These factors allow a margin for the acceptance of Meshaal’s leadership, in spite of opposition by Hamas’ hard-line leadership.

On the whole, developments taking place within Hamas have to be seen in the context of events taking place at the Palestinian, Israeli, regional and international levels. This underscores the importance of expediting efforts toward inter-Palestinian reconciliation—between Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian forces—in order to safeguard Palestinian gains and to secure the interests of the Palestinian people.