x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hamas and the unhelpful language of ‘resistance’

Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh can’t win over many West Bank residents with appeals to attack Israel, argues Hussein Ibish

For months Hamas has been struggling under the worst crisis it has faced since 2007, if not in its entire history. But suddenly, with negotiations in the doldrums, some Hamas leaders apparently sense a sudden opportunity to try to seize the momentum with outrageous rhetoric praising violence. This clearly underscores how much Hamas depends on a collapse in hopes for peace to push its agenda in Palestinian society, how hypocritical their talk of “resistance” is, and how much those who are allowing or forcing talks into a crisis are playing into their hands. But there may be even more at work than first appears.

The lingering impasse in the talks has been accompanied by a widespread intensification of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Israel’s relentless announcement of new settlements and “recognition” of outposts that amount to further land-grabs stoke the worst Palestinian fears. Recent weeks have also seen a major uptick in settler violence aimed at Palestinians.

There have also been increasing attacks against settlers and Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, seemingly by Palestinians attacking alone and often with unclear or unarticulated motivations. The worst of these incidents was a shooting last Tuesday, when an unknown individual opened fire on an Israeli car in the West Bank last week, killing a police officer and wounding his wife and child.

This terrible deed gave the Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh an opportunity to step into the maelstrom with a particularly reckless – but for his own narrow purposes undoubtedly carefully calculated – set of pronouncements.

Taking a calculated jab at the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Palestinian Authority, Mr Haniyeh declared “negotiations with the occupation have failed”, and claimed this to be “an unquestionable fact”. He said the shooting in Hebron “brought back life to the path of resistance”, and called for the capturing of more Israeli soldiers.

Of course “the path of resistance” is to be practised in the West Bank, not from Gaza. Hamas leaders like Mr Haniyeh are happy to be reckless, particularly rhetorically, where they have no responsibility or assets. But they have become highly risk-averse in their Gaza power base. Hence it was entirely predictable Mr Haniyeh would bluster: “We tell the enemy and anyone who thinks he is able to tame the West Bank ... the West Bank will be the future point of our struggle with the enemy.”

Mr Haniyeh was able to paint Hamas as supporters of “armed struggle,” and imply that, should there be a generalised security deterioration in the West Bank, they would be positioned to lead any new violent uprising. But these appeals are unlikely to garner new supporters or sympathy in the West Bank itself. At most it plays well with Hamas’s hard-core base. And it’s a quick and obvious leap to suspect it is actually aimed most at Islamic Jihad, which has been harassing Hamas from its religious and political right in Gaza and becoming a genuine rival to their rule.

Mr Haniyeh can’t be hoping to win over many West Bank residents with appeals to attack Israel when everyone can plainly see how cautious Hamas has become in allowing, for example, rocket attacks against southern Israel from the territories they control in Gaza. Moreover, few Palestinians outside of extremist groups would regard opening fire on a car, even one driven by a settler police officer, and wounding a woman and a nine-year-old as praiseworthy “armed struggle”. They are more likely to respond positively to the PA’s reaction, which was to condemn the shooting while insisting that Israel wouldn’t condemn a similar deadly attack against Palestinians.

There’s a third and deeper context to Mr Haniyeh’s outrageous remarks, which is the continuing power struggle within Hamas itself. He and other Gaza-based leaders have long worried about efforts by Politburo members living abroad to shift Hamas’s regional allegiances. In particular, there appears to be a significant sentiment of grievance among the Gaza-based leaders regarding what they view as a grave miscalculation by the external Politburo regarding the future of Egypt and the relationship of Hamas with Iran. Hamas never did benefit much from the rule of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Meanwhile the deterioration in relations with Iran merely served to draw Islamic Jihad closer to Tehran at Hamas’s expense, and complicate Hamas’s own efforts to repair relations with their erstwhile Iranians patrons.

So Mr Haniyeh’s outburst at first glance appears to be aimed mainly at the PLO and the PA in the context of attacking diplomacy and championing violence. On closer inspection, it looks like pushback against Hamas’s burgeoning rivals in Islamic Jihad in Gaza. But its actual target may be much closer to home.

There’s every reason to think that Mr Haniyeh’s comments are driven primarily by internal power struggles within Hamas. Such remarks can’t possibly play well with the general public. They won’t do anything to impress Islamic Jihad supporters. But they may be part of a longer-term campaign, which has been underway for years, by the Gaza-based leadership to assert its primacy over the still-dominant exiled leaders in the Hamas Politburo. The costs to the Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone Gaza, are plainly the last thing on his mind.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog