A demonstrator in the West Bank holds the Palestinian flag and a sign alluding… (Abbas Momani, AFP/Getty…)
GAZA CITY —
Just a couple of years ago, the prevailing wisdom about Hamas was that its Gaza Strip-based leaders were forced to be more moderate because they bore the brunt of economic boycotts and military clashes with Israel. Exiled Hamas bosses living in the relative comfort of Damascus, however, could afford to take a tougher stance.
But the "Arab Spring" has turned the equation on its head, with longtime hard-liners who had resided in relative comfort in Syria adopting a more conciliatory tone as they scramble for safe haven — and leaders in Gaza emboldened by the rise in neighboring Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped create the Palestinian militant group in the late 1980s.
Gaza-based Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar are demanding a stronger overall voice in the Islamist organization, in what is becoming its most public fracture since its founding. The Gaza faction sees little reason to make concessions and is particularly skeptical about Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal's sudden embrace of Palestinian reconciliation with the West Bank-based rival Fatah party, fearing the move will end the group's five-year run as the rulers of the Gaza Strip.
The power struggle is likely to shape Hamas' policies in the coming year, determining whether it continues on a course of reconciliation with Fatah or reverts to a more antagonistic and possibly violent path toward Israel.
"The roles have been reversed," said Michael Broening, a Hamas expert and director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German-funded think tank in Jerusalem.
The split is coming to a head as Hamas holds secretive elections for its Shura Council leadership body and appoints a new Politburo chief. Some close to the group predict that Meshaal, despite his recent announcement that he would not seek reelection, will win another four-year term and be given a mandate to implement a unity government with Fatah, which Hamas forced out of Gaza in a 2007 battle. Though less popular in Gaza, Meshaal enjoys continuing support from Hamas members in the West Bank and diaspora, who outnumber those in Gaza.
But he is facing a vigorous challenge from Haniyeh, who was once viewed as a figurehead but is now asserting himself as a potent rival. Haniyeh has boosted his international profile this year with trips to Iran, Turkey and Egypt, affirming Hamas' embrace of armed resistance and dismissing peace talks with Israel as pointless. After the United States killed Osama bin Laden, he praised the Al Qaeda leader as a "holy warrior."
Meshaal, by contrast, has called for a focus on nonviolent resistance and supports giving rival Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas more time to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. He has also endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, which some see as an indirect acceptance of Israel's existence even though Hamas officially refuses to recognize Israel.
In an interview at his Gaza home, Zahar, once viewed by the West as a moderate, acknowledged the debate within Hamas, but said the divisions were being exaggerated and exploited by its enemies.
"It's not about different ideas, it's about the methods," he said. "In the end the majority will decide and everyone accepts." Raising an open palm to make his point, Zahar said, "See, all of these fingers are on the same hand. Some are long, some are stout. But when we grasp something, it is together."
Still it was Zahar who was seen as having broken ranks over the last year with his public and personal attacks on Meshaal for pursuing the reconciliation deal and failing to consult the Gaza leadership. Such disputes are rare in Hamas, which is known for its discipline and keeping arguments behind closed doors.
Zahar said he supports the Shura Council decision to back Meshaal regarding reconciliation, but personally considers the program "foolish."
Meshaal's apparent transformation from Iranian-supported radical to peace-seeker coincided with the collapse of his longtime residency in Syria, which has descended into violence and ethnic strife. Not wanting to take sides and unwilling to express support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Meshaal has been shopping for a new permanent base in Jordan, Egypt or Qatar, so far with little luck.
"Before Meshaal was considered the radical with support from Iran and Syria, but things have shifted in the past year and now he's the moderate as he looks for a new place," said Al Azhar University political analyst Mkhaimar Abusad in Gaza City. "That's the political price he must pay. He can't continue with the same old rhetoric if he wants to be in Cairo, Doha or Amman."
Unhappy with Meshaal's refusal to back Assad, Iran has reportedly reduced its funding to Hamas, dealing a blow to Meshaal's image as the group's international liaison and controller of the purse strings. At the same time, Iran is supporting Islamic Jihad, a Hamas rival in Gaza.