The success of Islamist parties in North Africa during the Arab Spring has inspired the Hamas terror organization to rebrand itself as ‘pragmatic.’
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing the coastal enclave in a bloody 2007 putsch, is now jockeying to reposition itself amid the shifting terrain of the Arab world.
Hamas is reported to be scaling down its presence in Syria amid tensions with President Bashar al Assad over the popular uprising there, but at the same time, the terror group is seeking to strengthen ties in Arab countries where ‘pragmatic’ Islamists have made strong political gains.
On Thursday, Hamas announced it would be joining the PLO and moving to forge a unity government with Fatah in Ramallah, claiming it was ready for “political pluralism at home and limiting violence at home.”
The move comes as PLO officials threaten to downgrade all bilateral ties with Israel in fovor of a unilateralist track and a return to ‘popular resistance.”
The PLO has decided on “a strategy based on continuous efforts along with the international community to secure full recognition and full United Nations membership, pursuing internal reconciliation, and keeping up the popular resistance,” a senior official told reporters earlier this week.
The announcement precedes a regional tour by Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh of Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar, and Tunisia – his first trip outside the enclave since 2007.
The trip is a sign Hamas feels more confident and less isolated, amid the surging fortunes of Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.
“This is an Islamic region, and once people are given a fair chance to vote for their real representatives, they vote for the Islamists,” Mahmoud Az-Zahar, a Hamas co-founder, said of the strong polling by Islamists in North Africa. “We feel strengthened by popular support.”
It is also a sign that Israel’s airstrikes-for-rockets strategic paradigm vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza has served to maintain Israel’s poor security situation in the South and led to a missed operation to deal with the terror group once and for all.
“The rise of the Islamists could be seen as game-changer for Hamas,” Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, told Gulf News. “Hamas no longer sees itself as a besieged island in a sea of hostility. This goes to the very psychology of the movement … They have strategic depth now.”
This new sense of confidence has translated into a declared intention of following the model of the Islamist parties abroad. They have shown readiness to share power with secular and liberal parties in governing coalitions.
Gazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, told reporters the example of Islamist parties “opened our eyes to the potential of making coalitions with other Palestinian factions.”
“This will create a new political Islam in which a coalition is the main goal, not to monopolize the regime. No one accepts one political color. The time of one-party rule has passed,” he added.
Analysts say, however, with Hamas’ strong polling in Fatah’s enclaves in Judea and Samaria, the real motive is likely appearing pragmatic while seeking to seize power in Ramallah at the ballot box.
Mukhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, told the Maan news agency that the example of the Muslim Brotherhood, which birthed Hamas, would be critical.
“The Muslim Brotherhood understands the limitations attached to becoming a governing party, and there is a moderation in their political discourse,” Abu Sada said.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood is saying now that they are willing to respect Egypt’s agreements with other countries and are not going to impose Islamic law, that would inspire Hamas to imitate their practice in Gaza.”
Many observers, however, doubt Hamas will be led to moderate itself and become more pragmatic should it enjoy success at the polls and enter a unity government with Israel.
Haniyeh recently reiterated the group’s mantra that “armed resistance” was “the only way to liberate our land from the sea to the river,” during a speech in Gaza.
This came despite Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal’s claim that downshifting to “popular resistance” – a term coined by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah – was acceptable.
“We believe in armed resistance,” Mashaal told reporters last month “but popular resistance is a program common to all the factions.”
“Armed struggle is our right,” he said. “How we use it, and when we use it, is something different.”
Observers note, however, that the “program” of armed resistance is also common to all PLO factions, pointing to the organizations charter, which reads “Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. This it is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase.”
It also maintains “Palestine” is defined by the British Mandate and is “indivisible” – thus leaving no room for Israel to exist at all.
Hamas’ attempt to brand itself as pragmatic can only be measured in relation to corresponding shift towards radicalism by the PLO it now joins – and is likely to be a fad rather than a philosophy.
Earlier this year Az-Zahar admitted as much when he said any peace agreement negotiated with Israel would only serve as “a prelude to war.”
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