The Transformation of Hamas
What is striking about Hamas's shift toward the peace process is that it has come at a time of critical challenges from Al Qaeda-like jihadist groups; a low-intensity civil war with rival Fatah, the ruling party of the PA; and a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Last summer a militant group called Jund Ansar Allah, or the Warriors of God, one of a handful of Al Qaeda-inspired factions, declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Gaza--a flagrant rejection of Hamas's authority. Hamas security forces struck instantly and mercilessly at the Warriors, killing more than twenty members, including the group's leader, Abdel-Latif Moussa. In one stroke, the Hamas leadership sent a message to foes and friends alike that it will not tolerate global jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, which want to turn Gaza into a theater of transnational jihad.
Despite the crushing of Moussa's outfit, the extremist challenge persists. The Israeli siege, in place since 2006, along with the suffering and despair it has caused among Gaza's 1.4 million inhabitants, has driven hundreds of young Palestinians into the arms of small Salafist extremist factions that accuse Hamas of forfeiting the armed struggle and failing to implement Shariah law. Hamas leaders appear to be worried about the proliferation of these factions and have instructed clerics to warn worshipers against joining such bands.
Compared with these puritanical and nihilistic groups, Hamas is well within the mainstream of Islamist politics. Operationally and ideologically, there are huge differences between Hamas and jihadi extremists such as Al Qaeda--and there's a lot of bad blood. Hamas is a broad-based religious/nationalist resistance whose focus and violence is limited to Palestine/Israel, while Al Qaeda is a small, transnational terrorist network that has carried out attacks worldwide. Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have vehemently criticized Hamas for its willingness to play politics and negotiate with Israel. Hamas leaders have responded that they know what is good for their people, and they have made it crystal clear they have no interest in transnational militancy. Their overriding goal is political and nationalist rather than ideological and global: to empower Palestinians and liberate the occupied Palestinian territories.
Unlike Al Qaeda and other fringe factions, Hamas is a viable social movement with an extensive social network and a large popular base that has been estimated at several hundred thousand. Given its tradition of sensitivity and responsiveness to Palestinian public opinion, a convincing argument could be made that the recent changes in the organization's conduct can be attributed to the high levels of poverty, unemployment and isolation of Palestinians in Gaza, who fear an even greater deterioration of conditions there.
A further example of Hamas's political and social priorities is its decision to agree in principle to an Egyptian-brokered deal that sketches out a path to peace with Fatah. After two years of bitter and violent division, the warring parties came very close to agreement in October. The deal collapsed at the last moment, but talks continue. There are two points to make about the Egyptian role: first, Hamas leaders say they feel somewhat betrayed by the Egyptians because after pressure from the Americans, Cairo unilaterally revised the final agreed-upon text without consulting the Hamas negotiating team. Second, many Palestinian and Arab observers think Egypt is in no hurry to conclude the Fatah-Hamas talks. They contend that faced with regional challenges and rivals (Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia), the Mubarak regime views its brokering process in the Palestinian-Israeli theater as an important regional asset and a way to solidify its relationship with Washington.
Despite its frequently reactionary rhetoric, Hamas is a rational actor, a conclusion reached by former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who also served as Ariel Sharon's national security adviser and who is certainly not a peacenik. The Hamas leadership has undergone a transformation "right under our very noses" by recognizing that "its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future," Halevy wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot just before the 2008 attack on Gaza. He believes Hamas is ready and willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The US Army Strategic Studies Institute published a similar analysis just before the Israeli offensive, concluding that Hamas was considering a shift of its position and that "Israel's stance toward [Hamas]...has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking."
Indeed, it could be argued that Hamas has moved closer to a vision of peace consistent with international law and consensus (two separate states in historic Palestine, divided more or less along the '67 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and recognition of all states in the region) than the current Israeli governing coalition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently opposes the establishment of a genuinely viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and is opposed to giving up any part of Jerusalem--and Netanyahu's governing coalition is more right wing and pro-settlement than he is.
Hamas's political evolution and deepening moderation stand in stark contrast to the rejectionism of the Netanyahu government and call into question which parties are "hardline" and which are "extremist." And at the regional level, a sea change has occurred in the official Arab position toward the Jewish state (the Arab League's 2002 Beirut Declaration, subsequently reiterated, offers full recognition and diplomatic relations if Israel accepts the international consensus regarding a two-state solution), while the attitudes of the Israeli ruling elite have hardened. This marks a transformation of regional politics and a reversal of roles.