x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Most serious' division in Hamas' history tests Meshaal's acumen

Rivals emerge from the woodwork as the Arab Spring shakes the group's alliances - but the leader could get a boost from Qatar.

Last October, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, speaks at a news conference in Damascus. The Syrian popular revolt would compel Meshaal, after more than a decade based in the Syrian capital, to quietly unwind relations with the Al Assad regime.
Last October, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, speaks at a news conference in Damascus. The Syrian popular revolt would compel Meshaal, after more than a decade based in the Syrian capital, to quietly unwind relations with the Al Assad regime.

JERUSALEM // Once firmly in control of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal no longer appears to be the Palestinian-Islamist group's undisputed leader.

Rivals are stridently criticising the 55-year-old and the sweeping changes he has recently tried to engineer within Hamas. Such public dissension had been practically unheard of within the group's tightly regimented ranks.

Others, sensing his weakened hand, seem to be not-so-subtlety jockeying for his position.

But either way, Mr Meshaal, who will not stand for re-election to head Hamas's Political Bureau, appears to be struggling to fend off competitors.

"This is the most serious rift ever within Hamas's ranks," Ehud Yaari, an Israeli fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US-based research organisation, wrote last month.

Mr Meshaal, he said, "is now in deep trouble".

At issue are the far-reaching reforms Mr Meshaal has made to Hamas since the Arab Spring began. Those have unsettled many in Hamas, analysts say.

He quietly unwound the group's relations with its longstanding ally, financier and former host to its headquarters in exile, the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president.

Closing down Hamas's Syria offices last year out of frustration with the killing of opposition protesters by Mr Al Assad's security forces, Mr Meshaal, who led Hamas from Damascus for more than a decade, has sought to realign with Egypt and Qatar.

He also appears to have broken with Hamas's policy of armed struggle against Israel by tentatively backing non-violence.

But what prompted perhaps the sharpest bout of internal bickering was the agreement he struck last month with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of the rival faction Fatah. Under the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process, he agreed to allow Mr Abbas to head a unity government without, apparently, first consulting fellow Hamas leaders.

That sparked angry responses, particularly from Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas hardliner based in the Gaza Strip, which the group controls.

"That has of course made Meshaal appear weaker," said Talal Okal, a Palestinian political analyst who lives in Gaza.

He said Mr Meshaal now faced multiple challengers in Gaza on top of Mr Zahar, who also has criticised the break with Syria. Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, also is defying Mr Meshaal's attempt to steer Hamas away from Syria and its revolutionary allies Iran and Hizbollah.

Mr Haniyeh visited Iran last month despite opposition from Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and Tunisia.

Part of the problem is that Mr Meshaal, born in the West Bank, lacks a strong following in Gaza, analysts say. Competitors may also smell weakness now that he has lost financial support from Iran.

That probably came to the fore when he announced he would step down as Hamas's leader in January, which was widely perceived as a tactic to rally internal support.

It apparently failed, even with his seemingly loyal deputy, Musa Abu Marzouq.

Most Hamas competitors have tried to capitalise on this failed ploy by courting Iran as well as Egypt and Qatar, said Majid Shihade, a professor of international politics at Birzeit University's Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies.

But he doubted playing multiple sides could last - the only palatable option both politically and financially for Hamas is aligning with Qatar and friends.

And Doha is squarely Mr Meshaal's turf.

"Qatar has money to fund those who fall in line with its position, which bodes well for Meshaal," Mr Shihade said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Hugh Naylor on @HughNaylor