The second half of my recent piece, assessing Hamas’s situation, contains the big picture factors that drove Hamas to try to rebrand itself a little, and release a “new” policy paper:
Hamas’s leadership sees unfavorable regional conditions. They lack any powerful regional backer following the 2013 downfall of Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president in neighboring Egypt, in whom Hamas staked so many of its hopes.
In the past, Hamas enjoyed many partnerships, enjoying arms support and funding from the Shi’ite axis (Iran and Hizballah) – and forming relationships with Sunni powers.
But the Middle Eastern regional upheaval, which pits Sunnis against Shiites, and Islamists against non-Islamists, forced Hamas to make choices. It could no longer be on the same side of both Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, who are locked in a transnational proxy war. In the same vein, Hamas cannot be on the same side as both the Assad regime and the Sunni rebels fighting to remove him.
Worst of all from Hamas’s perspective, Morsi’s departure means it cannot rely on its primordial impulse to attach itself to a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-led backer.
Five years ago, there were initial signs of a regional wave of Muslim Brotherhood successes. The Brothers rose to power in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and had Qatari backing. Morsi’s 2013 fall changed Hamas’s fortunes for the worse. The rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a leader who identifies Hamas as a Gazan branch of his domestic arch-enemy, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, guaranteed Hamas’s isolation.
Relations with Cairo remain rocky despite recent Hamas attempts to improve ties. Egypt may open its Rafah border crossing a few days a week, but this does not change its core view of Hamas as a true enemy, to be held at bay, weakened, and deterred.
Hamas has also fallen out with Saudi Arabia. And Hamas and Iran do not get along very well either, despite Iran continuing to be the chief sponsor of the military wing, paying it $50-$60 million a year, according to various estimates.
This leaves Hamas with just two stalwart friends: Qatar and Turkey, neither of which can back them substantially. Turkey is not an Arab state, meaning that its role in the Arab world is limited, and its desire to lead the Arab world will always be met with suspicion. A failure by Turkey to infiltrate the region means that it can only do so much to assist Gaza. Qatar, though wealthy, is politically weak, and geographically distant.
New Hamas leader Yihyeh Sinwar, despite his fundamentalist inclinations, must consider these constraints and see that his Islamist-run enclave has little real backing.
To compound its problems, Hamas also has serious financial issues. It has three main sources of income: Donations from states, donations from private individuals, and Hamas’s network of investments.
Hamas gets far less money than it used to from its donors, according to Israeli assessments. Only Qatar and Turkey donate on a regular basis, while Iran continues to finance the military wing, but not the entire movement.
Hamas is a large organization, with operations in the West Bank, Qatar, and Turkey in addition to Gaza. In the Strip, it needs to pay salaries, and prepare for its next clash with Israel. Hamas also seeks to export terrorism to the West Bank and build up political support among West Bank Palestinians. All of this costs money. It is has offices and headquarters in multiple states overseas that require annual budgets.
Private Gulf State donors are drying up. Wealthy Saudis are more interested in supporting Syrian rebels. Hamas’s cause has moved to the back of the line.
Its investments, meant to be saved for a rainy day, now must be tapped.
So what can Hamas do? First and foremost, it continues its domestic military build-up, mass producing rockets, mortar shells, variants of shoulder-fired missiles, drones, and digging tunnels – all at the expense of the welfare of the 2 million Palestinians it rules.
That’s because Hamas drew many operational lessons from its last conflict with Israel, and is keen on rebuilding its terrorist-guerrilla army without interruptions.
One lesson was to focus on a perceived Israeli vulnerability through short-range strikes. To that end, it is building new rockets that carry 200 kilogram warheads – significantly larger than past rockets made in Gaza.
These projectiles are not accurate, but would cause enormous damage if they slammed into a southern Israeli town or village.
Hamas weapons factories produce simple RPGs as well.
Second, Hamas is trying to becoming more ‘acceptable’ to the region and to the world. It is about to unveil a new charter which will be an attempt to obfuscate its jihadist ideological leanings and ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and present itself as being merely a national “resistance” organization.
In the long run, Sinwar and his regime plan to continue to prepare for the ‘grand’ destiny they have chosen for Gaza. So long as Hamas rules Gaza, it will be the base of unending jihad against Israel, buffered by tactical ceasefires, until conditions are ripe for a new assault.