In Gaza, the more things change, the more they stay the same
A look at the résumé of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s newly elected leader in Gaza, shows he is far from being an easy prey but rather a shrewd political and military leader. It has been reported that he has masterminded many military operations and manoeuvres from his prison cell in Israel.
Hamas’s new political chief is an old figure in the Palestinian Islamist movement. He has an intimate knowledge of Hamas’s internal and external deals. His record might suggest that a change in Hamas’s political and military choices is coming.
Sinwar planned and led the 2011 Shalit prisoners exchange with Israel while incarcerated and acting as the elected leader of Hamas prisoners of Israel. Following his release from prison that same year, Sinwar rejoined the ranks of the Hamas leadership in Gaza and its military wing, al-Qassam Brigades.
Hamas is aware of the potential threats emanating from a new US administration keen on branding the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. Sinwar’s election as the head of Hamas in Gaza raises questions as to the nature of changes that might take place within the movement, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas’s relations with neighbouring Egypt are also open to speculation, especially when the country is fighting terrorist groups in Sinai.
Hamas’s controversial relations with Iran also might seem likely to change.
Observers of Islamist movements, however, do not believe in the possibility of real change inside Hamas, at least in the near future. Hamas refuses to forgo its Islamist agenda because it uses it for its own internal purposes. Hamas does not have a clear strategy for ending its disagreements with Fatah, which controls the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. Instead, Hamas keeps blocking reconciliation efforts brokered either by parties from within the Palestinian community or by regional or international powers.
Hamas has been in control of the Gaza Strip since June 2007 following a bloody battle with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah movement. Hamas’s opponents say the fighting exposed the lies behind the movement’s religious and political discourse and initiated the downfall of its relations with the other Palestinian factions.
Regardless of the nature of Hamas’s discourse, the first victims of any likely retaliatory actions by Israel in response to Hamas’s future political and military choices are going to be Palestinian civilians. It is also these same civilians who will be the first to experience any changes in Hamas’s internal policies. The Gaza Strip continues to lack life’s necessities.
Hamas does not have a clear strategy guiding its relations with its Arab and regional context. The movement kept changing colours as events of the “Arab spring” unfolded. It had wagered on the rise of Islamist movements to power but the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a painful wake-up slap. The movement was quick to condemn the coup in Egypt and now realises its desperate need for patching relations with Cairo since the latter is the key to ending the movement’s geographical and political isolation.
Hamas’s relation with the Egyptian leadership may seem back to normal. In reality, Cairo is following a traditional strategy. It is working towards primarily making life easier for Gaza inhabitants. With Hamas, however, cooperation is limited to intelligence work.
It is expected that Hamas will continue to rely on its support system in Iran as declared recently by Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas co-founder. The movement is trying to adjust its positions, especially after Donald Trump’s election as US president.
Trump has made war on extremist groups his primary foreign policy objective and Hamas is cognisant of the risks inherent if the Trump administration declares the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, especially considering that Sinwar and Rawhi Mushtaha, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, have already been blacklisted by Washington.
Judging by the backgrounds of Hamas’s new leadership, it is likely that the movement will maintain its traditional relations and positions and will continue to rely on slogans of resistance, liberation and fighting traitors. This is the same path taken by Sinwar in 1988. His political and military past suggests that escalation both internally and externally is going to be the order of the day.
Through continuous internal debates and endless secret elections, Hamas is obviously busy putting the final touches to a new strategy. Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau, spoke of “preparing a document bearing Hamas’s ideology and its political heritage”.
In the end, however, it is doubtful that there will be any real change in the essence of Hamas’s political discourse, a discourse mixed with religious overtones for political gains. In Gaza, the more things change, the more they stay the same.