Strategic Analysis: Hamas increasingly isolated

On July 24, UN officials stated that the Egyptian military had destroyed approximately 80 percent of smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Egyptian territory. Following the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, the Egyptian military set out to destroy hundreds of these tunnels as part of a broader effort to restore order in the Sinai Peninsula. With its main artery to the outside world effectively cut along with its ideological allies in Egypt ousted, Hamas has few favorable options to prevent its demise.

Smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip have been destroyed by the Egyptian military.
Smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip have been destroyed by the Egyptian military.

Tunnel closures have begun to impact daily life in Gaza, sparking rampant fuel and electricity shortages. Shortages of concrete have resulted in the firing of approximately 20,000 construction workers, while 90 percent of Qatari and Turkish-funded projects in Gaza have reportedly been suspended due to lack of supplies.  In addition, three fishing zones in Egyptian territory have since been closed to Palestinian fishermen.  The official border crossing at Rafah, meanwhile, has remained mostly closed since July 3.

Hamas has reached its most isolated point since it forcefully took control of Gaza in 2007, after enjoying years of popularity following the Arab Spring.  After Mohammed Morsi’s election in 2012, Hamas shifted alliances toward the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement, improving relations with Qatar, Turkey, the Syrian opposition, and other Sunni-Islamist entities. This policy shift came at the expense of long-standing ties with Iran and the Assad regime, resulting in a reduction in financial and military assistance.

Now, the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi government has cooled Hamas’ relations with Egypt, including the general population and the new military-backed government.  To make matters worse, Qatar’s newly-appointed monarch Sheikh Tammim is reportedly weighing a reduction of foreign aid to regional Muslim Brotherhood movements, including Hamas.

Inside Gaza, a local Tamarod (Rebel) movement has emerged, based on the grassroots campaign that ousted Morsi in Egypt. Since July 3, Hamas has cracked down on numerous demonstrations, while shuttering the Gaza branches of the Maan and al-Arabiya news outlets, which were unrelenting in their critical coverage of the group. On July 15, Hamas police dispersed protests in Gaza condemning an Israeli plan to relocate ethnic Bedouin residents. Those protests weren’t related to internal criticism, but Hamas’ hard line against any political gatherings highlights its concerns that local activists may become emboldened to organize mass anti regime protests in the future.

Hamas is now arguably faced with the most challenging undertaking in its history. A failure to replenish sources of foreign aid will result in an unprecedented economic downturn in the Gaza Strip and threaten Hamas’ overall ability to maintain its rule.

To salvage this situation, Hamas’ leaders have three possible options, and none of them are very appealing.

Restore ties with Iran.

In June 2013, the Hamas leadership prevented Mahmoud Zahar, an influential former politburo member from exiting Gaza and traveling to Iran to restore ties, even though Zahar’s sentiment was shared by many high-level Hamas military wing commanders.  Even in their current crisis,  Hamas  remains divided over reaching out to Iran.  Its current politburo believes that a warming of relations with the Islamic Republic would weaken its popularity in the Sunni-Arab world, especially in the shadow of Iran’s staunch support for the Assad regime’s campaign against the Sunni opposition.

Reconcile with Fatah and rejoin the Palestinian Authority.

Additional internal leadership divides are likely to prevent Hamas from reaching a long-sought after reconciliation agreement with the Fatah party and its reincorporation in the Palestinian Authority. Following a resumption of peace negotiations between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Israel, Hamas members have lashed out at President Mahmoud Abbas. The Fatah party, meanwhile, has been accused of exploiting anti-Islamist sentiment in the region to incite criticism against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Provoke Israel.

The option of instigating an escalation with Israel remains unlikely under current conditions, but will become increasingly plausible in conjunction with Hamas’ isolation. As witnessed in the past, Hamas has used escalations with Israel to draw international attention toward Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and ease Israel’s blockade. After an eight-day conflict with Israel in November 2012, Hamas succeeded in expanding its fishing and agricultural zones, in addition to lifting other limitations as part of a subsequent ceasefire agreement. The downside, of course, is that another conflict with Israel will have destructive consequences on the people of Gaza, further fueling the flames of discontent.

Given the unfavorable alternatives, Hamas has little choice but to ride out the current political storm in Egypt in the hopes that the Brotherhood remains a prominent force in Egyptian politics. Such influence will serve to pressure any future Egyptian government to take a conciliatory approach to Hamas’ rule in Gaza.

If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is permitted to participate in future parliamentary elections and fares well, the movement’s regional standing may rebound, along with foreign aid from nations like Qatar. If the Brotherhood is outlawed in Egypt and banned from the political process, Qatar and other backers may further withdraw their support, with similar implications for Hamas.
Concerned about stability in Egypt or the Palestinian Territories? Click here.