As the Palestinian Authority, with Fatah at its core, is struggling to redefine its legitimacy and mandate, Hamas is emerging as a key player in the post-Gaza war period by reinforcing a strong and often contradictory network of alliances that make the Islamist group an indispensable actor in the coastal strip. Moving forward, however, there are foreign policy and governance challenges that make Hamas’s task to run Gaza even more difficult.
Hamas’s structure has long offered the organization the flexibility to have a complex foreign policy that, in the conflict with Israel, combines its confrontational military wing with its diplomatic political bureau. Its ultimate objective remains to hunker down steadfastly in Gaza. While not considered typical allies, both Iran and Egypt had a common interest for Hamas to emerge stronger in the latest Gaza war. On the one hand, this allowed the Islamist group to have the military means—with Iran’s support—to launch rockets, and on the other hand, to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel through the Egyptian channel.
These emerging conditions make it possible for Hamas to thrive in Gaza and beyond. However, there are also primary challenges ahead. The current Hamas network of alliances may eventually crumble as the interests of regional powers evolve, which could potentially leave the Islamist group in limbo. This happened in 2011 when Hamas’s leadership was split between those who endorsed the Arab uprisings and those who sought to preserve the necessary alliances to prioritize the Palestinian cause and Hamas’s interests. However, this Islamist group, which has run Gaza since 2007, began to turn increasingly pragmatic during the last two years.
Hamas’s Regional Alliances
In the 11 days of fighting during the May 2021 Gaza war, Hamas fired more than 4,000 locally made short-range rockets, aiming to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. Hamas’s Badr-3 rocket is reportedly based on an Iranian model that is also used by Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Hamas built this stockpile of rockets, managing to bypass Israel’s blockade of Gaza, with Iranian designs and know-how. It constituted a reminder by Iran that its allies could hit Israel from multiple fronts, if needed. These military ties between Iran and Hamas are kept discreet by both sides but they resurface during periods of conflict with Israel. During the latest Gaza war, Iran’s Quds Force commander, General Esmail Qaani, expressed solidarity with Hamas through a phone call to its political bureau chief, Ismail Haniyeh, who then publicly thanked Iran for providing support. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May that if Iran halts its support, Hamas “will collapse within two weeks.” In fact, while primarily relying on Iran’s support for its military wing, Hamas has also acquired its own capacity to build and stockpile weapons.
Moreover, the Gaza war brought Hamas and the Syrian regime closer, following a long mediation effort led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah. During the Gaza war in May, representatives of Palestinian factions (except Hamas) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Hamas leader Osama Hamdan reacted to Assad’s public support for the resistance against Israel: “We praise back anyone who praises us. It is only natural for the relations with Damascus to return to their previous state.” Mahmoud Mardawi, a member of Hamas’s national relations bureau, told Al-Monitor that “Hamas needs to have good relations with Palestine’s surrounding countries, including Syria,” adding that “we will not miss the opportunity to return to Syria and coordinate with its ruler.”
No longer relying only on Iran and the so-called “resistance axis,” Hamas has diversified its alliances in the past few years to have contingency plans for survival in running the Gaza Strip.
No longer relying only on Iran and the so-called “resistance axis,” Hamas has diversified its alliances in the past few years to have contingency plans for survival in running the Gaza Strip. Following the Gaza war, and after meeting Egyptian officials, Haniyeh flew from Cairo on a regional trip that included Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Morocco, Mauritania, and Lebanon. This reflects the growing confidence level between Egyptian officials and Hamas political leaders as they currently share common interests. Hamas needs the lifeline of the Rafah crossing, the only access point for Gaza to survive the Israeli siege, and Egyptian authorities are leveraging their relations with Hamas to restore Cairo’s traditional role and renew ties with the United States and Israel. President Joe Biden twice called his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, during the Gaza war, after having avoided any contact with him since Biden took office. In addition, Gabi Ashkenazi became the first Israeli foreign minister to visit Cairo in 13 years.
Hamas is also adding a new layer to its regional role as Turkey is mending fences with Israel. According to Arab and Israeli media reports, Ankara could potentially play a role in the mediation to secure a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, as Cairo’s initiative has stalled. This would allow Hamas to expand the utility of its alliances while Turkey could restore its role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, beyond the regional opportunities that the recent Gaza war has already offered, Hamas is also attempting to reach out to other Arab regimes with which it previously had difficult relations.
In Jordan, there is increasing public pressure to restore Amman’s relations with Hamas, while the monarchy believes that the Palestinian Authority should be the primary Palestinian interlocutor. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi confirmed in May that his government was in contact with Hamas during the Gaza war, and Hamas leaders were making a deliberate effort1 to reach out to Jordanian politicians on this issue, most notably those who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Amman had closed Hamas’s offices in Jordan since 1999 and is less motivated than Hamas to fully restore this relationship.
The Palestinian Islamist group has also been making attempts to mend fences with Riyadh by benefiting from new regional dynamics, such as the Saudi rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar. The head of Hamas’s political bureau abroad, Khaled Meshaal, spoke to the Saudi channel Al Arabiya on July 4 for the first time in a decade. He called for restoring Hamas’s relations with Riyadh, praised Saudi Arabia’s historical role in the Palestinian issue, and affirmed that Hamas will not be part of any particular regional axis. This is a step forward from what Haniyeh said in April: that Hamas’s relations with Riyadh are “good and strong,” but they are now on “a painful and unfortunate page.” Hamas is urging the Saudi leadership to release around 60 of its supporters, including its former representative in Riyadh, Mohammed al-Khodari who has been detained since April 2019. Given that Saudi Arabia has been distancing itself from the normalization process with Israel, Riyadh seems more receptive than before to restoring some normalcy in its relations with Hamas given the ongoing Saudi rapprochement with both Iran and Turkey.
Hamas’s attempts to reopen channels with Saudi Arabia are part of the larger context of containing the wave of Arab-Israeli normalization agreements that began during the presidency of Donald Trump. Hamas’s approach in dealing with this issue has evolved since Biden took office. Last year, Meshaal publicly criticized the new Sudanese military leadership that revoked the Hamas leader’s Sudanese citizenship in December 2020, after Khartoum normalized relations with Israel. In May of that year, he chided the chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, for normalizing with Israel in a message that summed up Hamas’s current approach: “… we are open to all Arab countries and the world, and the system of government in Sudan is a national matter and we respect the will of any people in the Arab world, and we deal with the official systems and with the people.” Meshaal’s criticism of the Sudanese leadership was a soft target; after all, Sudan is not a country that is consequential for Hamas at the present time. Singling out Sudan then allowed Hamas to pressure other Arab regimes that began normalization or were considering entering this process.
Hamas’s leadership seems to be increasingly adapting to the reality that most of its allies, new and old, have simultaneous relations with Israel.
However, Hamas has increasingly shown its pragmatic side with Haniyeh’s visit last month to Morocco, one of the newest Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel. In addition to meeting Moroccan Islamist Prime Minister Saadeddin Othmani, Haniyeh attended a reception hosted by King Mohammed VI. Having an Islamic party leading the Moroccan government eases up Hamas’ relations with Morocco and King Mohammed VI does not want to be seen opening to Israel while fully shutting the door on Hamas. Hamas’s leadership seems to be increasingly adapting to the reality that most of its allies, new and old, have simultaneous relations with Israel.
The Palestinian Authority’s Challenge
The momentum of the talks between Fatah and Hamas that preceded the Gaza war has now stalled; the groups are once again operating on two difference tracks despite the ongoing Egyptian mediation to reach a conciliatory agreement between them. When Haniyeh visited Beirut, his trip was boycotted2 by Fatah leaders in Lebanon. The mediation led by the Lebanese Amal Movement eased public tensions between Fatah and Hamas in Lebanon, but it did not resolve them.
A key issue that might be contentious between Fatah and Hamas is the reconstruction of Gaza and, specifically, whether the new United Nations mechanism should process a grant from Qatar through the Palestinian Authority or have it reach Gazans directly. This is part of the competition between Fatah and Hamas as to who better represents Palestinian aspirations. According to media reports, the Palestinian Authority gave US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hadi Amr a list of confidential demands for the new Israeli government before resuming peace talks, which likely included ending the expansion of settlements in Jerusalem, halting Israeli military raids on Palestinian cities, releasing the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, and increasing the number of permits to work in Israel that are granted to Palestinians. Some of these demands are similar to the conditions Hamas requested from Israel to sustain a long-term cease-fire in Gaza.
Unless Fatah and Hamas proceed with full reconciliation, the regional dynamics will reinforce the existing Palestinian status quo. Both Fatah and Hamas are now competing within this context.
The Biden Administration is working with Cairo and Amman to renew the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which would allow the latter to reclaim some of its legitimacy in speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people by competing with Hamas’s emerging role. The stalled reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas after the Gaza war not only delayed the Palestinian elections but renewed the US approach of improving the standing of the Palestinian Authority at the expense of limiting Hamas’s clout. However, unless Fatah and Hamas proceed with full reconciliation, the regional dynamics will reinforce the existing Palestinian status quo. Both Fatah and Hamas are now competing within this context.
Hamas is playing on two parallel tracks: pursuing mediation with Israel through the Egyptian— and potentially, the Turkish—channel while continuing to push back against Arab-Israeli normalization. Hamas’s pragmatism continues in engaging Israel, albeit indirectly, and in publicly reaching out to US officials. Meshaal sent a message to Biden via an interview with Middle East Eye: “We do not take you to be our enemies although we object to many of your biased policies in favour of Israel and against our Arab and Islamic interests. But we do not fight you. So we are ready to communicate with any party without conditions.” He also warned that “no matter how long it takes Hamas will not succumb to your conditions.”
The Palestinian Authority lacks credibility in leading Palestinian aspirations, while Hamas is benefiting from the emerging regional dynamics. However, there is little Hamas can do beyond sustaining the status quo in Gaza, which will not serve its interests in the long run. According to a report released this month by the World Bank, United Nations, and European Union, the latest Gaza war caused economic losses in Gaza estimated at between $105 million and $190 million, while recovery and reconstruction will require $345-$485 million in the next two years. Hamas alone cannot lead this massive effort and will have to make a compromise with either the Palestinian Authority or with its regional supporters, and most likely it will be the latter. Although Hamas’s network of alliances is now a blessing, it could also quickly become a curse.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here