x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An opportunity as Hamas comes in from the cold

Hamas is determined not be left behind by the changes sweeping through the Middle East.

As the winds of change sweep the Middle East after a momentous year, Hamas seems determined not to be left behind.

The Islamist party is reducing its presence in Damascus, home to its headquarters for 10 years, because of the continued violence inflicted by President Bashar Al Assad's forces. Since October, the party has been quietly transferring officials out of the Syrian capital. As The National reports, Hamas plans to relocate its headquarters entirely, although its options may be limited. There has been speculation that Qatar might be the final destination.

For a group that has long depended on Syria and Iran's patronage, this move reflects a fundamental change in regional alliances. The repression in Syria now makes the Assad regime more of a liability than an asset.

This shift also coincides with the announcement on Thursday by Khaled Meshaal, the group's political leader, that Hamas was joining efforts to hold new elections for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That is one of the most significant steps towards reconciliation since the Battle of Gaza in 2007.

Hamas still stops short of renouncing violence, but participation within the PLO hints, at least, that the group might be willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. And elections would again make politics more important than the battlefield in resistance to Israel.

There is still healthy scepticism whether Hamas can play a constructive role in realising a Palestinian state. But the 2006 elections, which the group won, showed that Hamas represented a significant segment of Palestinians. As such, and over the objections of the Israelis and the Americans, it has to be included in the political process.

How popular Hamas still is remains to be seen. The 2007 takeover of Gaza was one of the worst episodes in relations among Palestinians. It could be argued that Hamas's mandate in Gaza has long since expired; of course, the same could be said for President Mahmoud Abbas's government in the West Bank.

Palestinians need new, unified elections to move forward. For years, real reconciliation seemed unlikely, but the Arab uprisings have changed the dynamic. "Now we have a common ground that we can work on," Mr Meshaal told the Associated Press. "The popular resistance, which presents the power of people." Those are the right words, but it remains to be seen whether Hamas will follow through with actions.