Why Israel and the West need to change their approach to negotiating with Hamas


After a 72-hour ceasefire took effect on August 5, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Cairo to begin talks to end the Gaza conflict. But the most influential Palestinian figure will not be in the room: Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, will remain at his base in exile in Qatar. Ultimately, he will decide whether Hamas would accept a longterm ceasefire.

The last ceasefire collapsed within hours on August 1, partly because of rivalries within Hamas and struggles over command-and-control between the group’s military and political leaders.

Hamas is not an entirely cohesive organization: there is a political wing living in exile; a political wing inside the Palestinian territories; and a military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades. Each wing represents a different trend within Hamas and much of the power rests with the exiled leaders, who tend to be the most hardline.

Once it achieved political authority by winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas needed to make compromises and play politics. But until recently, Hamas did not show much willingness to bargain with its rivals in the Palestinian Authority.

One reason is that for years, Hamas’ traditional foreign protectors — Syria and Iran — encouraged its exiled leaders to maintain their uncompromising stance. Hamas sometimes took actions that were more geared to the interests of Syria and Iran, and less to the needs of its Palestinian constituency.

The West also bears blame for this trend. By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe were helping its external leaders dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories.

The internal leadership, cut off from the outside world, is dependent on the exiles to raise money and to help the group survive. Those external leaders, living in comfort away from Gaza and the West Bank, can afford to be inflexible. They don’t answer to a Palestinian constituency and they don’t live among average Palestinians.

Most day-to-day decisions within Hamas are made by its political bureau, which has eight to 10 members, most of whom lived in exile in Syria until the 2011 uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The politburo is chaired by Meshaal, a soft-spoken former physics teacher, who rose to prominence after surviving an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997. After the Syrian uprising, he relocated to Qatar, while other politburo members went to Cairo and Beirut.

Officially, Hamas is run by a Shura Council, an internal parliament made up of about 50 members who live both inside and outside the Palestinian territories. The council has final say on major policy decisions, such as a change in Hamas’ stance toward Israel or whether the group would enter into peace negotiations. But the council generally cannot meet in one place at one time because many of its members are unable to travel into the Palestinian territories for fear of arrest or assassination. So the leadership consults through emails, faxes, phones and coded messages.

While Hamas remains isolated, the hard-liners led by Meshaal will continue to dominate. Ever since Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004, the group has no longer had one supreme leader.

Hamas is not like the Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Yasser Arafat for decades. Today, Meshaal is the one who comes closest to a controlling figure, but he does not have the same stature as Sheikh Yassin.

Yassin became active in Islamist politics in the 1970s, creating a group in Gaza called Mujama al-Islamiya (the Islamic Center). The group spread a message of Islamic revival; dispensed charity; and built mosques, schools and clinics. Yassin modeled his group after the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, which has inspired branches and affiliates throughout the Muslim world.

Founded in Egypt in 1928 by a school teacher named Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood was initially focused not on politics but on religious outreach through preaching and providing social services. The group soon became politically active in the struggle against British colonial rule, both in Egypt and Palestine, and it called on Egyptians and other Arabs to confront the forces of imperialism through a renewed commitment to Islamic piety.

Yassin and other leaders of the Islamic Center established Hamas in late 1987, at the start of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas quickly became the main rival to Arafat’s PLO.

When Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections, the US and European Union quickly cut off aid to the Palestinian government. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes also halted their assistance and worked to isolate Hamas, a Sunni group that emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran had supported Hamas covertly for years.

After the West cut off aid, Tehran publicly pledged $50 million to the Hamas government, and Iran became the movement’s main financial supporter. Iranian funding continued until 2011, when Hamas broke with the Assad regime in Syria, which is allied with Tehran. Since then, Hamas has been dependent on financial and political support from Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. But Hamas and Iran stayed in contact, and the current conflict is bringing them close together again.

After Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority and seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on the territory’s 1.7 million residents. With support from the US and Europe, Israel claimed that the siege would prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Israeli towns and would turn Palestinians against the group.

But this policy of collective punishment was morally inexcusable and ultimately futile: it has only harmed the people of Gaza and made them more dependent on Hamas.

To achieve an enduring ceasefire, the Israeli government must address the fundamental problems facing Gaza: an Israeli siege — supported by Egypt — that has stretched for seven years, and the territory’s separation from the rest of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. 

In April, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation agreement and formed a “national consensus” government that was dominated by Fatah, the PLO faction led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel responded by cutting off fund transfers to the Palestinian Authority used to make salary payments to the 43,000 civil servants who run Gaza, precipitating a new economic crisis in the territory. Instead of seeing the accord as an opportunity to engage with a new Fatah-Hamas coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government worked to undermine Palestinian reconciliation.

Ultimately, Israel and the West must swallow a bitter pill and learn to deal with Khaled Meshaal and the Hamas exiles.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Follow him on Twitter here.

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