From Egypt to Tunisia to Turkey, Islamist political movements which seemed on the ascendancy following the 2011 Arab Spring were put on the defensive in 2013. That was also the case for Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled the Gaza Strip since it seized power in a violent conflict with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Hamas benefited from the rise of political Islam post 2011. With newfound allies in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, Hamas improved its regional standing as a movement seeking self-determination for Palestinians.
Hamas and the Arab Spring
But Hamas soon became caught between the ideals of the Arab Spring and the support it received from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Hamas support for the Syrian uprising meant that the movement lost not only its international headquarters in Damascus, but also much needed political and financial assistance it received from Iran, the regional sponsor of the Assad government.
So Hamas rushed to strengthen its ties with post-Mubarak Egypt, interpreting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a positive sign for the organization, due to the ideological, personal, and political ties between Hamas and the Brotherhood.
But the army removal of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, in July was a serious political and economic blow for Hamas as Emad Shahin, Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo explains.
“Ousting President Morsi led to the demolition of hundreds of underground tunnels which were the lifeblood of the Gaza Strip that brought in fuel, food, and construction materials from Egypt. Frequent closures of the official border crossing with Egypt contributed to shortages of fuel needed to generate electricity,” Shahin said.
The closures also resulted in a loss of revenue as Hamas was benefiting from taxes it imposed on the underground tunnel economy. Shahin argues that a number of regional developments seem to once again threaten the group’s position.
“The June leadership shift in Qatar, where Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani transferred power to his son, could affect Qatar’s investments in Gaza—and in Hamas specifically—if the new leader decides that supporting Hamas is no longer in Qatar’s interest,” Shahin added.
A changing regional landscape
The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also means that Hamas will be increasingly more isolated at the regional level.
Shahin argues that Hamas should realize that for a non-state actor it is becoming very difficult to find prominent regional ally in a region that is witnessing a massive change in its political landscape.
Adel Al-Adawi, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that in response to these developments, Hamas has been thinking very seriously about its future.
“It seems that one option for Hamas is to try to rekindle its relations with Iran, but from a strategic point of view Hamas has to rethink its ideology and move towards a pragmatic approach toward peace with Israel,” Adawi said.
Easing ties with Israel and the Palestinian Authority
Because of its increasing isolation observers say an isolated Hamas will likely continue to work to maintain quiet on Gaza’s borders to avoid provoking military action.
Conflict continues however. Just this week Israel’s military struck Gaza after an Israeli civilian was killed by a Palestinian sniper along the volatile Gaza border. But Adawi rules out the notion that Israel would reoccupy Gaza or launch a major offensive to further weaken Hamas.
“Hamas has been no match to Israel from a military point of view so I do not think Hamas’s weaker position after Morsi’s departure will change the Israeli calculus.”
Adawi said if the group wants to be part of the future, live in peace and enjoy economic prosperity the only option is to put down arms and recognize Israel.
Shahin believes that Hamas also lost the popular support it used to enjoy among the Egyptian public under Morsi’s administration, Egypt was neutral in mediating an elusive reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but that may change also.
“With the bad feelings about perceived Hamas involvement in threatening the Egyptian national security whether in Sinai or by terrorist activities inside the country, Egypt could go back to favoring the PA in the reconciliation efforts,” said Shahin.
The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has also led to a marginalization of Hamas.
Shahin believes Hamas could soon be faced with two options that would likely decide its future.
“Hamas weakness could either lead the movement to a fundamental concession by allowing a Palestinian Authority-led government to accept a peace deal based on the 1967 borders or to maneuver and buy more time,” Shahin said.