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Shifting regional alliances put Hamas 'up for grabs'

Palestinian politics have long existed relatively independent of the regional developments surrounding them. As Hamas knows well, this is no longer possible.

In recent decades, Palestinian politics have existed - or at least been treated - as relatively independent of the regional developments surrounding them. This is no longer possible. Since the split between the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, and especially since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, internal Palestinian politics have become a proxy battlefield for regional rivalries and competing agendas.

Perhaps the biggest factor in this transformation is the extent to which Hamas came "up for grabs" after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, which forced the organisation to break its long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. This meant that Hamas, particularly its paramount political leadership outside of Gaza, needed to find new patrons quickly. Governments around the region suddenly had an opportunity to gain real influence over the most powerful and enduring political symbols in the Arab world: Palestine and Jerusalem.

A new axis of support for Hamas has emerged from a Sunni Islamist or Islamist-supporting set of governments in the region, especially Qatar, Turkey and Egypt.

Thus far, the biggest winner in the battle for influence with Hamas is probably Qatar. This was reflected in the recently concluded Hamas political leadership election, won by incumbent Khaled Meshaal, who is seen as close to Doha. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, last year took the lead in breaking Gaza's diplomatic isolation with a formal visit, and pledged at least $400 million (Dh1.47 billion) in aid.

Indeed, Qatar's sudden acquisition of power and influence over a major Palestinian faction might be its single most important breakthrough yet in using its soft power to extend its influence and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting agenda throughout the region.

But Egypt's hard power - particularly its military control of Gaza's southern border, the only means of access not directly dependent on Israel - remains inescapable. After their falling out with Syria and, consequently to some extent Iran, many in Hamas had hoped and expected that the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohammed Morsi would become their most important new ally.

To Hamas's vocal chagrin, Egypt remains primarily guided by its national interests, not the ideology of its new president. The Egypt-Gaza border has never been more tightly controlled, Egyptian-Israeli security coordination is strong, and Egypt's military has been flooding Gaza smuggling tunnels with raw sewage.

Even before the so-called Arab Spring, Egypt was the party designated by the international community to deal directly with Hamas effectively but without providing it undue added diplomatic legitimacy. Now in Cairo, Hamas leaders receive the same requisite cups of tea they got from former President Hosni Mubarak, along with a few more spoonfuls of sympathy. There's plenty of rhetorical support for Hamas from the Egyptians, but little more. To the contrary, actual Egyptian policies on most Gaza-related issues have hardened compared to those of the Mubarak era.

Had Egyptians felt able or inclined to come to the rescue of Hamas and Gaza, which they manifestly have not done, their own favoured candidate, Mousa Abu Marzouk, might have emerged as the new Hamas political bureau leader. He certainly spent the past year campaigning hard for the post.

But not only did he lose the leadership battle to Mr Meshaal, he did not even retain his post as deputy leader. Yet it is significant that the decisive politburo meeting was held in Cairo: Hamas is clearly counting, in the long run, on a transformation of Egyptian policies, because practically it is the only country other than Israel that can actually determine what does and does not happen in Gaza.

Last year Turkey, with its Islamist Justice and Development Party government, emerged as yet another suitor for Hamas's affections. It had already taken a major step in trying to establish its credibility in the Arab world with the 2010 flotilla confrontation with Israel. The country reportedly provided Hamas with $300 million in aid as its leadership fled Syria and scattered around various Arab capitals.

And Turkey remains interested in at least the symbolism of the Palestinian issue: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly considering a visit to Gaza soon.

However, Turkey's attention is focused at present on the war in Syria, relations with Iran and Iraq and an attempted rapprochement with Kurdish factions both inside Turkey and on its frontiers.

Crucially, a powerful faction that politically, diplomatically and financially supports the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, including Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others, stands counter to the other Hamas-supporting bloc.

For example, Qatar recently launched a $1 billion fund, supposedly to preserve "Islamic sites" in Jerusalem. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan publicly reiterated Jordan's long-established but recently downplayed role as "a custodian" of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and its role "in preserving them".

Most ominously, the contest over influence among Palestinians isn't restricted to the Sunni Middle East, as seemed possible after the Syrian uprising started. Iran has been able to retain strong military ties - as evidenced in last year's exchange of rocket fire between Gaza factions and Israel - with Hamas's military wing and, even more closely, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

For Palestinians, all of this raises two crucial questions. First, what kind of independent state are they trying to build: an exclusivist Islamist autocracy, or a pluralistic nationalist polity? And, second, how can Palestinians navigate a new political landscape in which regional forces are once again able to exercise a degree of influence in their internal political affairs - a situation they once hoped was a thing of the past?

 

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @Ibishblog

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