Repositioning of Hamas after regional changes

Friday 24/07/2015
Tony Blair in Gaza last February

BEIRUT - Hamas seems to be repo­sitioning itself, carving its own niche through warming relations with the main regional pow­ers — Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran — as well as Egypt. It is also en­gaged in indirect talks with Israel to implement the 2014 ceasefire agree­ment that ended Israel’s 50-day war in the Gaza Strip.
With the collapse of a number of Arab regimes and the long-awaited Iran nuclear deal, a new reality is in place. Everything is under review for the dangers facing the region are enormous and real, highlighted mainly by the emergence of the notorious Sunni extremist Islamic State (ISIS) and the fearful prospect of a destructive, all-out Sunni-Shia war. A Hamas leader, who spoke at length to The Arab Weekly on condition he not be identified, said the militant group was restoring “a natural balance” to its relations “in a disturbed environment”.
“We started with Iran. Now, a step was made with Saudi Arabia. Three months ago, there was an overture with Egypt,” he explained.
Hamas’s relations with Iran, which supported and funded the militant group for years, deteriorat­ed in 2011 after Hamas stood by the Syrian people in their revolt — and this led to the departure of its offi­cials from Damascus — while Iran backed the regime of Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad.
Iran punished Hamas for its stand in the Syrian conflict and halted funding to the Palestinian group for at least three years. Funding report­edly resumed in April.
“No doubt, there has been a de­cline in our relations with Iran dur­ing the past few years,” the official said. “But last year, we exerted ef­forts to restore them within a sim­ple and specific logic related to the struggle against Israel.”
Then came the landmark visit by Hamas political chief Khaled Me­shaal to Saudi Arabia in July where he met King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud in an attempt to end a sev­en-year political boycott. The visit unleashed speculation that Hamas had moved from one camp to an­other.
That is simply not correct, ac­cording to the Hamas leader. “We don’t deal or act with such a logic… I don’t know about the Saudi inten­tions,” he said. “Our interest is the Palestinian cause and the need to have Saudi Arabia back it as it used to do before.
“It is a new page (in Saudi-Ha­mas relations) and an encouraging start.”
But is Saudi funding on the way to Hamas? The leader insisted that there has been no talk concerning that issue.
Saudi-Hamas ties strained after the collapse of a Saudi-brokered reconciliation accord between Ha­mas and its political rival, Palestin­ian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, a decade ago.
Hamas, the leader said, supports the inter-Palestinian reconciliation “but we need to know what the Saudis will decide about that and what role they could play”.
Saudi efforts and the dangerous situation in Sinai paved the way for high-level talks with Egyptian officials and warming relations that had been strained because of Hamas’s strong links with Egyp­tian Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, ousted by the army in 2013, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There are positive talks about opening a new page (between Ha­mas and Egypt),” the Hamas leader said. “But I believe we need some time to see the relationship settle and return to its normal course.”
No doubt Egypt has other priori­ties but the “frightening” situation in the northern Sinai Peninsula where the army is fighting Islam­ist militants would speed up closer rapprochement and cooperation.
Hamas looks at the developments in Sinai as an equally alarming phe­nomenon for the militant group. “If security collapses in Sinai, God forbid, it will be very dangerous for us,” the leader said.
In Gaza itself, Hamas has already sensed the danger of the hard-line Salafi groups. “There are a number of small units here and there (in Gaza) who are Salafis close to ISIS but they haven’t constituted yet a consolidated group as such,” the Hamas leader said.
Gone are the days when Hamas was considered a terrorist group as European envoys, including former British prime minister Tony Blair, are meeting with its representatives to firm up last summer’s ceasefire accord.
“The Israelis exaggerated about these talks and some of the Euro­pean mediators tried to advance the idea of a five or 10-year truce,” the Hamas leader said, dismissing the possibility of a long-term truce.
“It is all about implementing the 2014 ceasefire agreement that calls for halting the military operations and resistance attacks in exchange for opening the crossing points and reconstructing the strip,” he ex­plained.
Hamas’s new overture coincided with the conclusion of Iran’s his­toric nuclear deal and mounting fears that it was wrapped up at the expense of the Sunni Gulf states.
The nuclear deal is “a success story” for Iran, the Hamas leader said. “It (Iran) moved from being a terrorist state to a normal one, ex­pected to play a bigger role to reach political understanding in the re­gion.”
While noting that only a political solution would end the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, he said “there seems to be a chance for that now. Some contacts are under way but they haven’t reached a point where the parties get convinced to sit at the negotiation table.”
However, what appears to con­cern him most is the fear of a Sunni- Shia overall war in the region.
“That would be a real catastro­phe,” he said. “If we plunge into such a blood bath, Iran will lose all what it has achieved and the Ar­abs will lose what remains in their hands.”