Within one year, the fortunes of the two main Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, have seemingly reversed. Undercut by the ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood ally in Egypt and cut off from much of the world, Hamas is facing a number of threats, both external and internal. As economic conditions worsen in Gaza and discontent rises on the streets, the militant movement is growing paranoid and finding Gaza increasingly difficult to govern.
A year ago, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was in the same situation as Hamas is now. Israel was withholding tax money and Arab and Western donors were scaling back their support – distracted by the world financial crisis and the Arab Spring and unhappy about PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to restart peace talks with Israel. The backlog of unpaid salaries of civil employees increased, and discontent on the streets skyrocketed. Analysts warned of “a total breakdown in law and order in the West Bank.”
Hamas’ popularity, by contrast, was on the rise, propelled by events in Egypt and Syria – though the movement no longer had close ties with the Syrian regime, as the Muslim Brotherhood, closely linked to Hamas, was gaining ground in the civil war and was courted by much of the international community. Hamas was also basking in the attention of Arab rulers such as the emir of Qatar, who visited Gaza and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support.
But with the restart of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the ouster of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, all that changed. Though many Palestinians still distrust Abbas, he is once again regarded as the legitimate face of Palestinian leadership. He is receiving important foreign delegations, while economic tensions in the West Bank have decreased. In the meantime, Hamas’ coffers are empty, most of the tunnels under the Egyptian border it had used as a lifeline have been destroyed, and its few remaining international friends (such as Turkey) are on the defensive. Furthermore, a homegrown popular movement is organizing to challenge Gaza’s rulers while Fatah is also reportedly waiting for an opportunity to pounce on Hamas.
The movement in question, Tamarod (named after Egypt’s own successful Tamarod), blames Hamas, even more than Israel, for the plight of Gaza’s population. However, the group has little experience organizing, and there is no force in Gaza that could take on a role similar to that played by the Egyptian army. The movement has been organizing primarily online and has a decentralized leadership structure. A rally planned for Nov. 11 was canceled under pressure from Hamas, whose police arrested opposition activists and journalists. But a military parade by Hamas commemorating last year’s brief war with Israel also failed to mobilize popular support.
Hamas is clearly nervous, as attested by a massive recent campaign to identify and intimidate members of Tamarod, to interrogate a wide range of dissidents and to tap social networking sites. Although the Palestinian Tamarod is not likely to bring down Hamas, it has been able to draw strength from popular discontent. There are rumors that other movements could follow in Tamarod’s footsteps, putting additional pressure on Hamas, while providing an outlet through which Gazans can voice their discontent and counter their government’s repressive techniques.
Moreover, with many in Fatah reportedly hoping to use Hamas’ current weakness to regain control over Gaza, there is no shortage of more traditional forces seeking to challenge Hamas. Some critics charge that Tamarod itself is a product of a Fatah conspiracy. Some Fatah leaders even reportedly dream of restoring their rule in Gaza, with Egyptian support – ironically over Israel’s objections. Analysts suggest that the former PA strongman in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan, who has been trying to patch up a past quarrel with Abbas, could spearhead a Fatah return to the strip – perhaps first from Egypt, where he could be invited to help “seal” Gaza’s border.
Among other signs that Hamas is worried about its grip on Gaza, the movement seems desperate to forge as many new relationships as quickly as possible in order to compensate for the loss of domestic and international support. That it has recently been trying to reconcile simultaneously with its former patron Iran as well as with rival Salafist factions in the strip is a sign of its desperation. It has also made attempts “to be more open to the West,” recently appointing a first ever English-language spokeswoman.
The success of these measures, however, is far from guaranteed given the isolation the movement faces and the threat the new Egyptian regime represents for it. What could complicate Hamas’ situation even further is a potential positive development in the peace negotiations Abbas’ government is conducting with the Israelis, a process Hamas has condemned. Although Palestinian reconciliation remains elusive at best (despite periodic proclamations by both Fatah and Hamas), if a peace agreement were reached between Israel and Fatah, Hamas would face further pressure to either leave power or transform radically – which would necessitate recognition of Israel and entail a contentious and divisive internal debate.
However, remaining defiant in the face of a negotiated agreement endorsed by both the PA and Israel would cement international consensus against Hamas and would make its predicament worse – possibly triggering a coordinated economic or even military campaign from Israel, Egypt, and the PA to topple Hamas.
In any case, while it is too early to predict the outcome of the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian talks, many analysts believe the secrecy surrounding them is a positive sign, as was the recent release of 26 long-serving prisoners.
The recent deal between Iran and the West also threatens Hamas, since many analysts believe that an eventual comprehensive deal would cover not only the Iranian nuclear program, but also the entire Iranian system of alliances in the region, including in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Worse, Hamas leaders are reportedly struggling to reach a consensus on how to respond to the many threats and to the rising tensions in Gaza. According to a media account of a recent interview with a senior Hamas member, “Hamas ... has no direction. The leaders of Hamas do not know what to do. There are struggles within the movement between those who think that they should realign with Iran and Hezbollah.”
As the region changes dramatically around it, Hamas is struggling to adapt. This inability to redefine itself amid major regional shifts – increasing popular discontent and the loss of key regional supporters – could force unfavorable changes and jeopardize its grip on Gaza.
Victor Kotsev is an independent journalist and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).