Hamas: The Growing Distance from Damascus
By: Husam Kanafani, Qais Safadi, Sanaa Kamel
Published Friday, January 20, 2012

The possible exit of Khaled Meshal from Hamas' leadership may be the official sign that the Palestinian movement has moved away from Damascus and cast its lot with the Islamic movements rising to power across the Arab world.

The nature of Hamas and the hostile environment it operates in have kept much of the movement's internal workings secretive. The election of its leadership has always been done discreetly without any media fanfare. However, this time around the secret is out. Campaign tactics, including smears and rumors, are being employed ahead of the upcoming leadership elections, reportedly scheduled for the spring.

Khaled Meshal, current head of the Islamic Palestinian movement's politburo, has been at the helm of the organization, and leads its external wing, since the mid 1990's. During that period, he survived a botched assassination attempt by Mossad in Amman, moved the politburo's main office from Doha to Damascus, and witnessed the Israeli pullout from Gaza, which would become the stronghold of Hamas.

Sources in Hamas say that the previous extension of Meshal's tenure as politburo chief of the movement beyond the party's term limits came in the midst of Israel's Cast Lead campaign on Gaza in 2008/09. The movement was not about to change its leadership at such a critical time.

The situation today seems different in light of the changes taking place in the Arab world and the accompanying rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Changes in Hamas, which is part of the regional Brotherhood, seem more likely, especially after news about Meshal's intention not to seek another term spread.

Much was made of this news but Hamas neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Sources close to the movement did not agree on a clear interpretation of this news, or whether it was actually true. Instead, these sources provided different scenarios, some of them having to do with internal differences within the movement, while others have to do with regional pressure, specifically in relation to the crisis in Syria. One source however insisted on saying that the news is "just a rumor."

Sources close to Hamas asserted that Meshal will not be running for another term, saying the decision was taken unanimously at the politburo meeting in Sudan two weeks ago.

This source did not deny that the decision was the result of pressure and differences, without elaborating. He did say, however, that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and some of Meshal's latest positions (regarding the armed struggle, for example), which instigated unfavorable reactions from Hamas leaders in Palestine, have nothing to do with the issue.

The source connected the issue to the uprising in Syria, saying that choosing not to nominate Meshal stems from the movement's desire to transfer the politburo from Damascus without having to resort to an official announcement. Electing another politburo chief will automatically transfer the body to a different location, where the new chief resides.

As for nominees and potential new locations, the source pointed to two possibilities. One is Mousa Abu Marzouk, who was succeeded by Meshal when the former was imprisoned in the US. If Abu Marzouk is elected, the politiburo will be moved to Cairo, which became his semi-permanent home.

The second person is the head of the Palestinian government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, who enjoys great influence inside the movement. If he is elected, the politburo will move to Gaza.

The same source, however, says the second possibility is unlikely, because the presence of the politburo in Gaza would limit its chief's ability to move about freely, and would make him an easy target for Israel.

He also adds that Hamas is counting on changes in Egyptian politics with regards to Gaza in general and the Rafah crossing in particular. Haniyeh was reassured about such changes taking place during his last tour of the region.

The source does not rule out the possibility that the decision not to nominate Meshal stems from pressure regarding Hamas' position towards Syria, which is controversial within the movement.

He points out that Meshal recently received a message from a major regional political party that supports Hamas, asking him to take a clear stand on the Syrian issue.

Meshal tried to find a way out by initiating a dialogue between the Syrian regime, Muslim scholars, and Muslim preachers known to oppose the regime while also being opposed to the rise of Salafists.

The source adds that this attempt was not met with approval from leaders in Hamas, who see the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world as an ideal opportunity to open a dialogue with the US, which has been increasingly engaging the Brotherhood in the region.

News about not nominating Meshal caused a rift in Gaza too. A source from Hamas, who did not want to be named, insisted that the news is just a rumor with the aim of dividing the movement between "inside and outside Palestine, like Fatah, which is in a state of decline."

He said that "those spreading these rumors have an interest in seeing the reconciliation with Fatah fail because they benefit from Palestinian divisions. They may be from Fatah or Hamas, and are not happy with Meshal's serious effort to achieve national reconciliation."

Another source close to Hamas confirmed that "there is no consensus on Meshal's candidacy for another term, especially among the hardliners in Hamas, because he violated the movement's modus operandi in dealing with internal issues."

He added that this lack of consensus "has become clear lately, especially after the events in Syria, which upset the movement's balance internally and externally, thus allowing differences to surface."

The same source argues that "the hardliners in the movement are trying to undermine Meshal through spreading news about his intention not to run again."

He said that it might be an attempt on their part to put pressure on him in order to back away from what they perceive as the concessions he made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian sources agreed with this view saying that Meshal's candidacy for another term is facing opposition led by Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a member of the politburo, who enjoys a great deal of influence in the Gaza Strip. But at the same time, a strong current both outside and inside Palestine supports extending Meshal's tenure.

Differences between Meshal and al-Zahhar surfaced following the reconciliation deal with Fatah, which was signed in the presence of Abbas in Cairo after Meshal granted the Palestine Authority a year to negotiate with Israel without consulting the politburo, according to informed sources.

These sources said that al-Zahhar did not hide his anger and his opposition to Meshal's speech during the signing ceremony. Al-Zahhar also announced both privately and publicly his opposition to Meshal's candidacy for another term.

The same sources say that talk about Meshal's intention not to run again might also be a test to gauge the Hamas leadership, and test its strength in the various areas where it has a presence.

He ruled out the possibility of having internal elections before this division is addressed, particularly between Meshal and al-Zahhar, and before knowing what will become of efforts to reconcile with Fatah.

Hamas' internal elections were supposed to take place in June of last year, but they were postponed to December, before they were put off once again until next April or May. The secret procedures within Hamas make these dates tentative at best.

The only candid commentary regarding Meshal's candidacy came from Salah al-Bardawil, a member of the politburo. He told Al-Akhbar: "The rumors are baseless, changes in leadership are decided based on a system of shura or consultation and not based on individual decisions regardless of the position of the individual."

He added: "Hamas leaders are not known to compete for leadership positions, which are considered mandates and not honors bestowed on them. When any change in leadership does occur, there will be an official announcement."

Al-Bardawil, however, did not deny that Meshal will be passed up as a candidate in the upcoming elections, leaving the matter in the hands of the shura system, which sources say, does not want to nominate him for another term.

Regardless of whether the Meshal controversy stems from regional pressure, internal differences, or organizational regulations, indications are that Hamas is about to enter a new political stage where its future is far from clear.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.