Is Hamas Finished? Facing a Youth Rebellion and Egyptian, Iranian Hostility

The party-militia Hamas, a distant offshoot in Palestinian Gaza of the Muslim Brotherhood, has seldom been on the sunny side of the street. But a combination of difficult political choices has left it more isolated and more broke than ever before in its history, as China’s Xinhua wire service points out. Adding insult to injury, it faces a Tamarrud (Rebellion) youth movement of a strong secularist bent that is vowing to do to it what Tamarrud in Egypt did to former President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel imposed a blockade on the entirety of Gaza in 2007 after its attempt to dislodge the party from power there failed. The blockade was damaging but imperfect, creating deep unemployment and food insecurity. There were ways partially to circumvent it. Egypt winked at the construction of huge underground tunnels from Gaza to the Sinai desert, through which smugglers brought in millions of dollars worth of goods. Moreover, cash came in from Iran to reward Hamas (Sunni fundamentalists) for allying with secular Syria and the Shiite fundamentalist Hizbullah of south Lebanon.

These were not ideological allies but rather strange bedfellows, all of whom only had in common fear of Israeli expansionism. The expansionism may have been driven by Israel’s own insecurity, but it was real. Israel occupied and tried to colonize Gaza 1967 to 2005, occupied Syrian territory in Golan from 1967, and occupied a substantial swath of south Lebanon 1982-2000. In fact, neither the people in Gaza nor the Shiites in South Lebanon had been particularly militant before the Israelis tried to batten on to them and oppress and exploit them.

Palestinians have been among the least fundamentalist populations in the Muslim world, and the hard line religious temptation is one that only a minority felt. The party did win the January 2006 elections for the Palestine legislature, but that was a fluke and said more about the corruption and unpopularity of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) than about desire for religious rule. In the aftermath, the Israelis and the Bush administration decided it had been an error to let Hamas run (Bush hadn’t expected them to win). They connived with the PLO (the leading party of which is Fateh) to make a coup against Hamas, which succeeded on the West Bank but failed in Gaza. Hamas retained power in Gaza, but then faced the Israeli blockade, which aimed at punishing Palestinian civilians by keeping them just on the edge of hunger. Some 70% of Palestinians in Gaza are from families ethnically cleansed from their homes in what is now southern Israel in 1948 or in later wars such as 1967; many of them could walk back home in an hour. Many of them still live in refugee camps, having never received compensation for the property that was stolen from them.

Hamas was presented with a severe dilemma by the outbreak of the attempted popular revolution and then the civil war in Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood enthusiastically joined the opposition to the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had opposed the socialist, secular policies of the Baath Party and its land reform and large public sector. The Muslim Brotherhood represented urban shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and ideologically is not so far from the evangelical wing of the US Republican Party. Moreover, the Baath came to be dominated by Alawite Shiites, whom Muslim Brothers do not consider Muslims. The MB staged a revolt in Hama in 1982, which Bashar’s father brutally crushed, killing thousands.

Not only was Hamas’s alliance with Bashar al-Assad increasingly uncomfortable, what with the Syrian Muslim Brothers denouncing them as traitors, but then in June of 2012 Muhammad Morsi of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency. He opposed al-Assad and was a long-time warm supporter of Hamas.

So most of the Hamas leadership (not all) abandoned al-Assad and Damascus, seeking to replace his patronage and support with that of Morsi in Cairo. This move had the advantage of aligning Hamas with the other main regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since Egypt is more influential with Israel than Iran, moreover, the alliance with Cairo also promised more likelihood of a successful truce with Israel (In between bouts of militancy and violence, Hamas has often said it would accept a long-lived truce of up to a century, even though it rejects Israel in the long term).

But the Hamas abandonment of Syria angered Iran, which allegedly cut Hamas off without a further dime. (The US has to stop charging Iran with being a supporter of ‘terrorism’ if what it means is that it gives money to the government of Gaza.) That cut-off of Tehran support was all right with much of the Hamas leadership, though, because Morsi in Egypt was willing to become the movement’s patron instead.

Then on July 3 of this year, Morsi was overthrown in a combination popular revolution and military coup. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was more or less declared a terrorist organization by the military, with 2000 of its leaders arrested and its sit-ins broken up in a bloody crackdown, killing hundreds.

Not only is the officer corps apparently determined to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they charge the Brotherhood with links to Hamas as a way of tainting the MB with the terrorism label. The Muslim Brotherhood foreswore violence in the 1970s, but Morsi’s support for Hamas is being used to tar him with the brush of terror. Hamas has deployed violence, including against civilians, for its political purposes and itis wed to an extreme theocratic vision of oppressive religious dictatorship. The Egyptian military even alleges that Morsi gave Hamas sensitive information about the Egyptian prison in which he was being held during the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak, so that they could send guerrillas to spring him and his associates from their cells.

So the Egyptian military now has it in for Hamas, as well, which they suspect of links to Egyptian militants and rebellious Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian troops have lost their lives fighting al-Qaeda affiliates. So the officers have done what Mubarak never dared. They have definitively closed the tunnels. Apparently nothing is getting through. And they closed the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians in Gaza are complaining that Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has deeply harmed “tourism,” but surely that is a euphemism for smuggling.

Just as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown in part by the militantly secularist Tamarrud or Rebellion movement, so Palestinian youth in Gaza have thrown up their own Rebellion group. They feed stories to the Egyptian press such as that Hamas keeps a secret string of secret prisons where they imprison their ideological (secular) enemies and where they practice the ugliest kinds of torture and interrogations. The Gaza Rebellion/ Tamarrud movement claims to have masses of supporters and to be considered a real threat by Hamas.

In fact, the Israelis are now being a little nicer to Gaza than the Egyptians, since they are sending in a few truck loads of building materials, on which they still have restrictions lest Hamas build military bunkers with the cement. The extent of Israeli generosity should not be exaggerated. The USG Open Source Center translates this item for September 21: “Palestinian Information Center in Arabic at 0819 GMT on 21 September cites Deputy Jamal al-Khudari, chairman of the popular committee for confronting the siege, as saying that ‘losses incurred by the suspension of the projects of the private sector, the municipalities, and the various institutions in the Gaza Strip have reached $100 million as a result of the Zionist siege,’ adding that ‘Israel’s promises to allow entry of building material covers only 25 percent of these projects if Israel fulfills its promise, which means the continued disruption of many of these projects.’”

Some observers are speculating that the Egyptian army will intervene in Gaza to overthrow Hamas. Others think Hamas will be forced by its new financial woes to make up with the PLO, which runs the West Bank, and essentially put itself under President Mahmoud Abbas.

While it is true that guerrilla movements are difficult to simply starve out, Hamas does at the moment seem in real trouble. There have long been signs that Palestinian youth in Gaza are sick and tired of its extreme fundamentalism, so if change comes, it could have a local social base.

21 Responses

  1. I doubt the Egyptian army would actually cross the border to deal with Hamas. It is quite unlikely Israel would fancy that approach and Turkey equally might be rattled by more fire set to the Middle East powder keg. On the other hand, a war was always the way out for regimes in precarious situations, q.v. Argentine and the Malvinas/Falklands.

    • “On the other hand, a war was always the way out for regimes in precarious situations, q.v. Argentine and the Malvinas/Falklands.”

      Just curious, how do you conclude that the Falklands War was a “way out” for Argentina? A way out of what? The Argentines were soundly defeated by the UK, and that defeat led to the removal of General Galtieri as President.

      • Sorry, was a bit cryptic here. Galtieri started the war to bolster his failing junta regime. Of course it backfired – he miscalculated that Thatcher had the will and Britain still the power to protect its islands half way around the globe. Hitler also had to eventually start a war or else his inflationary house of cards would have crumbled. He hoped, amongst other things, to recoup the cost of rearmament that way. The Iran/Iraq conflict had partially similar motives. Nothing is ever clear cut but wars are often started to bolster a regime.

        • “Hitler also had to eventually start a war or else his inflationary house of cards would have crumbled. He hoped, amongst other things, to recoup the cost of rearmament that way.”

          I would suggest that you have reversed Hitler’s motive and goal. Hitler did not start World War II in order to recoup the cost of rearmament. He rearmed in order to start the war, dominate Europe, and gain “lebensraum” in the East and the breadbasket of the Ukraine.

  2. Is democracy a realistic mechanism for the population to remove Hamas? Would there be a viable alternative to Hamas in the next elections?

    Also, do the Palestinian youth have the same social media capabilities as their counterparts in Egypt? That would be important for organizing protests.

  3. While I don’t deny your claim that Hamas is in an extremely difficult situation, I wonder if your characterization of Hamas as essentially hopelessly extreme is unfair. Consider:
    -A study by “an official U.S. government agency [concluded that] Hamas ‘has, in practice, moved well beyond its charter…has been carefully and consciously adjusting its political program for years and has sent repeated signals that it is ready to begin a process of coexisting with Israel.’”
    -Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, had this to say concerning Gaza under Hamas in early 2009: “Honestly, the idea that this is some totalitarian spot where you can’t write honestly is not true….Hamas is not al-Qaeda….I can’t tell you whether they are going to accept Israel. What they basically say…is if we can go back to the ’67 borders and we can deal with the question of a right of return and all Palestinians agree…we won’t stand in the way….[A]s a broad observation, it seems almost impossible to imagine that there could be a Palestinian state that doesn’t include Hamas as part of a political structure. And if that’s true, then Israel will not have the security of being a Jewish democratic state, not an occupier, without some relationship with the Hamas movement.”
    -According to an October 2012 New York Times article, “Hamas…is working to suppress the more radical Islamic militant groups that have emerged [in Gaza]. The jihadist extremists, known as Salafists and inspired by the ideology of Al Qaeda, are challenging Hamas’s informal and fragile cease-fire with Israel.” After the 2006 elections, “militant jihadists began attacks against Israel and also against Internet cafes, restaurants and women’s hair salons in Gaza, places they saw as being at odds with their deeply conservative interpretation of Islam.”
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  4. If it were any other administration than Mr Netanyahu, the arrival of aid into Gaza could be interpreted as a hopeful sign. Unfortunately, there is a cynical view that Hamas serves a useful purpose to Netanyahu’s objectives in a most dysfunctional way

    Hamas has suffered from similar problems affecting other ‘islamist’ administrations – squandering opportunities to better impact citizens’ lives and failing to differentiate its governing style and ethos from those of administrations it’s been critical of

    ” In the aftermath, the Israelis and the Bush administration decided it had been an error to let Hamas run (Bush hadn’t expected them to win)”

    After the elections in which Hamas won, the Post or the Times quoted an advisor to Dr Rice expressing surprise over Hamas’s election victory, claiming the Israelis hadnt advised them this could happen. It was definitely a face-palming moment. If the advisor to Dr Rice had only read the papers just to keep up to date on the region in his portfolio, there had been various polls leading up to the election claiming Mr Abbas’s popularity was in single digit standing. But elections were in vogue then

  5. Hamas initially looked like it would gain from the Arab spring, but is losing out.

    I think Qatar’s recent patronage of Hamas, which included a move of Hamas’s office there (due to Syria’s conflict) and financial aid, should have been touched on in the analysis above.

    I don’t know what’s happened in their ties since Morsi’s overthrow.

  6. Earlier this year Fatah had rallies in Gaza that were attended by thousands and thousands of Gazans.

    Hamas is actually more liberal than Palestinian Islamic Jihad and various Gazan militia groups, some of which have given their allegiance to al-Qaeda. Hamas leaders have been targeted for assassination by extremist Gazan elements.

    Hamas popularity arose largely from their resistance to Israel. However, their repressive social agenda against their own people has harmed their political fortunes more than Israel could do through its blockade and history of military action.

    During the Operation Cast Lead incursion, it was the extremist groups within Gaza that drew the heaviest proportion of casualties engaging the IDF. The Hamas leadership and militants largely avoided direct conflict with Israeli forces. Hamas nevertheless has maintained control of the government in Gaza since that time despite a recent spike in popularity of secular political movements within Gaza. Israel’s lessening of its materials blockade may encourage Hamas to make peace with the P.L.O/Fatah leadership.

  7. It appears the Palestinian people can’t win for losing, in part, because of their own leadership collaborating with Israeli and other forces. Again, nothing new there. It happened at Oslo – link to counterpunch.org – and several other venues since then.

  8. I think the Palestinians are headed for second class citizenship of a de-facto apartheid state of greater Israel. Because of the unconditional support from USA this state will be immune from any outside effort, moral or otherwise. An independent Palestinian State on WB and Gaza is no longer a viable possibility. The Arabs always thought that time was on their side, I think they are in for a rude surprise.

    • There are virtually no Israelis that want to give the Palestinians citizenship as that would necessarily confer voting rights that would result in Israel losing a great degree if not all of its character as a Jewish state.

      Right now about 21% of the citizens of Israel are Arabic and that only gives them a small number of seats in the Knesset and little else politically. That number swells to well over 40% if citizenship is extended to Arabs in the Occupied Territories and a projected Arab majority within a few decades.

      • I think Spiral007 is defining “second class citizenship” and “apartheid” to mean NO right to vote. Just like the USA and South Africa did. So the question is, do Israelis have the incredible arrogance to think that they could pull off what those other regimes failed to do, or will they just maintain the Occupation forever?

        Just remember, as we speak there are Americans plotting to restore the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers – a state where women and the poor couldn’t vote, and the 14th Amendment is eradicated. They’re just being very deceptive about it.

  9. If Hamas senses it’s time is up, might they actually start a war on the basis that they’re finished as a political party, and at least they’d get to take some Zionists with them?

    Sort of like Israel’s Samson option, only it wouldn’t require the other side to start the war.

  10. I can’t help but wonder what the Gazan youth are expecting to happen if they shrug off Hamas’ rule.

    My reading of their electoral victory way-back-when was that it was to a large degree a result of their being the only really credible resistance to Israeli expansionism.

    While it’s not inconceivable that Israel may reduce the blockade if Hamas is deposed, it’s doubtful that they’ll allow them to actually attain anything bearing more than a superficial resemblance to self-sufficiency.

    • Given the history of Israel’s Zionists and right-wing government since the early 20th Century it is difficult to conceive that the current standard bearers of that tradition will settle for less than complete annexation of what is left of the Palestine Territories. If the current aggressors don’t succeed then they will pass the torch to their progency in the next generation. Where the refugees will go is the next question.

  11. As it turns out, the solution to Islam wasn’t Western-backed repression or war, but just letting them implement their program.

    Nobody wants it.

    • We should consider the context in which political Islam seemed to appear out of nowhere in 1979.

      1. The US backed the uprising against the Marxist government of Afghanistan – Islamist fanatics always make the best guerrillas.

      2. The Soviet invasion that resulted from that was not opposed by Pakistan’s elected leader, so its Army murdered him and formed an anti-Communist alliance with the US.

      3. The fall of the Shah lead to Washington fearing that Communists would take over the revolutionary coalition in Tehran, and the feeling was – for a moment – that Khomeini’s people would be preferable.

      In other words, the US itself pumped up Islamism to destroy and replace Marxism and socialism in the Middle East, replacing the hope for justice in this life with justice in the next. Similarly, Israel helped build up Hamas in order to ruin secular/socialist Fateh.

      So for us Islamism was a lesser evil meant to divert these growing young populations for a while. It was up to the Islamists to come up with a movement for earthly economic justice, which is always what is needed, and what the US and #1 sponsor of Sunni radicalism Saudi Arabia violently oppose. Combined with the sellout of social justice by Iran’s ayatollahs, and the poor have no place to turn to.

  12. Thanks for your article, because I love your deep articles ,I would like to clarify some issues as a liberal Palestinian.

    1-No Palestinian from far left consider Hamas fundamentalist except Abbas’ party.
    2- After wining the election in 2006, Hamas was desperate to make National unity government with all left and liberals particularly, I know, with “Palestinian National Initiative-Edward Said party” but huge pressure and threatening form Abbas’ party killed the idea. Then Hamas was left alone to make a government without military forces who are in reality belong to Abbas’ party and refuse any cooperation with Hamas government. pleas read the story of Alan_Johnston. link to en.wikipedia.org

    Then Hamas start to be more aggressive with Abbas’ party who refused the elections from the first day. Abbas’ party even took all the cares of ministries, and they said let Hamas buy new cares.

    4- if you put a cat at the corner and then you start beating it..what you think it will do!! This is exactly what happened with Hamas.

    Thank you and sorry for my poor English

  13. Hamas has slowly been learning how to actually govern in Gaza and unless the Palestinian Authority can assert some competence there and work with the residents of Gaza instead of shaking them down even worse than does Hamas, Hamas might be the default player for some time. Hezbullah, the overtly Shi’ite Iranian client group in the region is not going to prevail in Gaza, so the choices are pretty stark – the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. Hamas is still the devil they know.

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