Hamas May Be Softening Up or Just Looking for a Home: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

A year of Mideast tumult has left the militant Palestinian organization Hamas in flux. As the regional states on which the group largely depends adjust, Hamas is trying to find a new place in the world.

That left regional commentators debating whether the Islamist group is moving toward moderating its extreme positions, or just maneuvering to stay afloat.

For years, Hamas's exiled leadership had been based in Damascus. That had become increasingly untenable with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad looking unsteady amid a popular uprising and Hamas leaders feeling uncomfortable with their alliance with him. Last week, it was widely reported in regional papers that all of Hamas’s top political leaders abroad had finally left Damascus and were looking for an alternative headquarters.

That week, and in the weeks before, the group's Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the last elected Palestinian government, traveled to Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and several Gulf states from the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is in charge of self-rule. He plans to head to Iran next.

Also, Hamas chairman Khalid Meshal, who had been living in Damascus, visited Jordan last week to meet with King Abdullah II. Like many individuals of Palestinian origin, Meshal is a citizen of Jordan, but he had been expelled from the country in 1999 by Abdullah's father, King Hussein, who deemed his presence incompatible with Jordan's peace treaty with Israel. The charter of Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, calls for Israel's destruction, and the group has committed numerous attacks on Israeli citizens.

Describing Haniyeh's regional tour, columnist Ibrahim al-Madhun of the Hamas-run, Gaza-based Filastin newspaper argued that with so many “state visits" to its credit, Hamas had finally escaped its isolation. These diplomatic achievements, he said, were “a flagrant challenge to the Israeli occupation that wanted the Gaza government to remain isolated, besieged, hungry, tired and busy receiving blows." Madhun went so far as to claim that five years after deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak joined Israel's tight embargo on the Gaza Strip, “The Arabs are endorsing the revolutionary enterprise of Gaza.”

But perhaps it’s the other way around?

Among Arab pundits, the most noteworthy visit was Meshal's trip to staunch U.S. ally Jordan, not least because many view Meshal as leading the movement away from the militant resistance that led to Hamas's isolation. Meshal has made several statements in recent months that suggest a shift away from violence in favor of a more prominent political role on the Palestinian scene as well as in relation to the Arab uprisings.

For example, in discussions with the rival Palestinian group Fatah over a plan for new Palestinian elections, Meshal has said that Hamas would focus on nonviolent forms of resistance to Israeli occupation. (Other issues, however, meant that a weekend meeting in Qatar between Meshal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah concluded with an agreement to postpone elections promised for May.)

Writing in the Jordanian Islamist daily As-Sabil, columnist Abdullah al-Majali argued that Meshal’s visit to Amman demonstrated how boxed in Hamas feels. "The axis of resistance that Hamas belongs to is stumbling and will collapse soon," he wrote. Thus, Hamas needs "to look for alternatives.”

Where will this lead Hamas? Fidaa Itani, a columnist at the Beirut-based daily Al-Akhbar, argued that the group's newfound closeness to pro-American monarchs in the region -- especially those in the Persian Gulf, who have funding to offer -- opens Hamas up to being co-opted. Itani compared Hamas with the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah.

While it has proven impossible to coerce or co-opt Hezbollah in this regard, despite long-standing American and local attempts to do so, Hamas can always be side-tracked.

There always will be room, he argued, "between the cracks in Hamas’s many walls for pressure to be exerted here or inducements made there -- or for Khaled Meshal to be cornered into saying things behind closed doors (which his hosts then leak to the media to prevent him from retracting).”

Hamas would be a willing participant in its own de-radicalization, Itani suggested. The group, he concluded, wants to shift toward “joining the Muslim Brotherhood mainstream in the Arab world,” and therefore move toward eventual American acceptance.

Filastin columnist Issam Shawer rejected such analysis, arguing that commentators were reading too much into the various Hamas visits, which he thought were better seen as Hamas just trying to get along in a complex world. Shawer wrote:

We must not forget that Hamas is adopting a cautious and realistic policy. Indeed, it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other states and works in favor of the Palestinian cause without contradicting Arab and Islamic interests.

As evidence that one should not look for telling patterns in Hamas's actions, he reminded readers that the group had previously “welcomed the Mubarak’s regime sponsorship of talks to ensure Palestinian reconciliation and adopted the Syrian capital Damascus as its headquarters although the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and oppressed in both Egypt and Syria. Hamas’s relationships with those regimes did not mean it was not opposed to the crimes being committed against the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood movements, something which was understood by the group in two brotherly states.”

In other words, Shawer was suggesting, Hamas's exiled leaders may not be softening up so much as just looking for a new home.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Feb/06/2012 23:08 GMT