CAIRO— The Palestinian militant group Hamas is showing signs of strain. Hamas which has dominated the Gaza Strip since it defeated its rival, Fatah in a bitter 2007 conflict, has suffered a series of setbacks recently that have left the Islamist group isolated and increasingly ostracized in a region where until recently it was celebrated and seemed on the ascendency.
In a bid to revive his group’s flagging finances and political profile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is likely to visit Iran shortly to patch-up damaged ties with Tehran, a onetime key patron. Those ties were severely strained after Meshaal broke ties with long-time patron Bashar al-Assad of Syria and moved Hamas headquarters to Qatar.
But now with Gaza isolated by Egypt’s military-dominated government and a new less supportive ruler in Qatar there are daily reports that the cash-strapped Palestinian resistance group is looking to shift its headquarters from an increasingly unfriendly Qatar and is casting around for an alternative host country in the Middle East.
U.S. analyst Jonathan Schanzer believes that Hamas has no choice but to re-establish with Iran close links upset by the different positions Iran and Hamas have taken over Syria’s civil war, with Tehran backing President Bashar al-Assad and the Palestinian group supporting rebels fighting to topple the Syrian leader.
“If Hamas runs back into the arms of Iran, then Beirut looks increasingly likely to become the new host city for the Hamas leadership,” said Schanzer, a Middle East expert with the Washington DC-based think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Hamas backtracks on Syria
In line with a possible rapprochement with Iran, Meshaal, who was reelected Hamas leader in the spring, has begun to distance Hamas from his previous outspoken support of the Syrian rebellion. In a recent statement he argued that while people “have the right to rise up for their rights”, this must be done through peaceful means.” He called also for an end to “sectarian violence” in Syria between Muslims.
Meshaal’s backtracking has dismayed Syrian rebels, prompting the Army of Islam, an umbrella grouping of hardline Islamist brigades, to warn: “He who performs jihad out of his office should not offer advice to those in the trenches.”
Meshaal has spoken also in support of peace talks, urging “a peaceful solution in Syria that guarantees the freedom and dignity of people.” The Army of Islam and most rebel brigades have rejected U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks.
Hamas has increasingly become isolated in the Middle East because of Arab Spring developments and the Syrian civil war shattering its established alliances. Hamas support of the Syrian rebels deprived it of funding from Tehran and Damascus, where it headquartered until 2012.
“I believe Hamas is near the point of bankruptcy,” said U.S. expert Schanzer. He estimates Hamas may have lost 60 to 80 percent of its funding.
According to Lebanese political analyst Ali Al-Amin, Hamas will continue to take a “more neutral position on Syria in a bid to facilitate its return to Iran’s embrace.”
Egypt shuts down pipeline to outside world
Additionally, Hamas has suffered financially from the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the first Muslim Brotherhood leader of Egypt. Since his removal from office by the military after massive popular protests, and a subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian army has been closing down hundreds of smugglers’ tunnels from Egypt into Hamas-run Gaza, which has been under a seven-year-old Israeli blockade.
The tunnels have been an economic lifeline for Gaza but the Egyptian army says militant Islamists use them to stage attacks in Sinai. A few tunnels remain open, not enough to make much of a difference for Hamas when it comes to running into Gaza not only weapons but cash. Money is hard to transfer for Hamas using the international banking system because of global money-laundering regulations aimed at preventing funding of designated terrorist groups.
Changes in Qatar
Combined with the funding challenge, the Hamas leader has found a change in Qatar since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani passed the crown this summer to his son, Tamim. The 33-year-old emir has been presiding over shifts not only on the domestic front but when it comes to foreign policy, too, in the name of “rebalancing.” The new emir has sought to improve relations with Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, particularly with Saudi Arabia, a foe of the Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood.
Although both Hamas and Qatar said their relations remain good, Meshaal abruptly this summer stopped being interviewed on Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari royal family. He has appeared just once in the past three months.
A move to Gaza for Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad, doesn’t seem to be on the cards. As the main diplomatic envoy for Hamas he needs to be able to travel easily. Also, Meshaal has come under increasing criticism from Hamas rivals led by Mahmoud al-Zahar, who blame him for the group’s isolation and are critical of the decision to back the Syrian rebels. “Gaza may not be the best place for him now,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.