August 21, 2013
|Cornered Hamas looks back at Iran, Hezbollah
|August 21, 2013 12:05 AM
|By Nidal al-Mughrabi
An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas celebrated when the Sunni movement’s Mohammad Morsi was elected president of Egypt in 2012, believing the vote would boost its own international standing and its grip on the isolated Gaza Strip.
In the meantime, outraged by the bloody civil war in Syria, the Palestinian group quit its headquarters in Damascus, snapping the Iran-led “axis of resistance” that challenged Israel and the West across the turbulent region.
Shiite Iran, which had for years supplied Hamas with cash and arms, was infuriated by what it saw as a betrayal of its close friend, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and drastically scaled back its support.
Tehran’s Shiite partner, Hezbollah, also voiced its fierce disapproval.
But following the ousting of Morsi, removed by the Egyptian military on July 3, political sources said Hamas had had direct and indirect contacts with both Iran and Hezbollah – anxious to revitalize old alliances and restore its battered funding.
“Some meetings have taken place … to clear the air. There is no boycott [of Hamas] but at the same time, things have not yet got back to normal,” said a Palestinian official with knowledge of talks who declined to be identified.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, former deputy head of Hamas’s political office, saw Hezbollah and Iranian officials in Lebanon last month, with other meetings taking place subsequently.
“It is in the interest of Hamas today to revise its rapport with Iran and Hezbollah for many reasons,” said Hani Habib, a political analyst based in the Gaza Strip. “At the end of the day, all the parties have an interest in this partnership.”
Locked in conflict with archfoe and neighbor Israel, which it refuses to recognize, Hamas has governed the small, densely populated Gaza Strip since 2007 after a brief civil war against its secular rivals.
With the Muslim Brotherhood in control of Egypt, Hamas felt it did not have to worry so much about its ties with Iran.
Hamas’s leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, abandoned his longtime base in Damascus last year because of the civil war that pitted Assad’s forces, backed by reinforcements sent by both Iran and Hezbollah, against mainly Sunni rebels.
One of the veteran leaders of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said there had never been a suspension of relations with Tehran and Hezbollah, suggesting that contacts may have slowed only because of the recent presidential election in Iran.
“We do not yet know the nature of Iran’s new policy, but the information we have received, which is not direct, suggests that the old policy will be endorsed by the new administration,” Zahar, a renown hard-liner, told Reuters in an interview.
Hamas hopes newly installed President Hassan Rouhani will open the financial taps again.
Diplomats estimated Iran used to give Hamas some $250 million a year, but one Palestinian official reckoned only 20 percent of that was now being handed over. Ehud Yaari, a Middle East expert from Israel, put the figure at just 15 percent, with no arms included.
“We have a situation of close to zero arms trafficking through the tunnels into Gaza,” said Yaari.
Very little material, weapons or otherwise, is passing at present through the smuggling tunnels that crisscross the desert border between Egypt and Gaza, with the new rulers in Cairo ordering a clampdown following Morsi’s removal.
The army-backed government has accused Hamas of interfering in Egyptian affairs and suggested that Palestinians might be helping Islamist militants active in the Sinai peninsula.
The restrictions on the tunnels, which flourished thanks to an Israeli blockade on the coastal enclave, cost Gaza at least $230 million in July alone, said Hamas Economy Minister Ala al-Rafati. But he rejected any suggestion of a financial crisis.
“There are some problems and they are being overcome,” he told Reuters Monday, adding that the tunnel trade, which provides Hamas with a crucial source of tax income, had dropped some 60 percent since Morsi’s ousting.
In an additional blow, Hamas’s close ties with Qatar have also been dented this summer.
The emir of the energy-rich Gulf state visited Gaza last October promising millions of dollars of aid, but he abdicated in June and his heir has shown much less interest in Hamas.
In reaching out once more to Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas’s dilemma is as much ideological as political – how to balance its Sunni Brotherhood roots with its vital interests to forge partnerships with fellow enemies of Israel.
Leading a special prayer meeting Friday for the souls of the “Egyptian martyrs,” the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, made clear that the war with Israel took precedence.
“We understand that the priority of our resistance is to liberate the land, regain the rights and return the Palestinian people to the land they were forced out of,” said Haniyeh, the movement’s deputy chief.
“We have no military and no security role in Egypt or in the Sinai. Our military and security role is here, on the land of Palestine and against the Zionist enemy.”
Founded in 1988, Hamas has regularly squared off against Israel, most recently in November last year in an eight-day conflict that killed at least 170 Palestinians and six Israelis. The truce was brokered by Morsi.
Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention [in Syria] and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.
Zahar, who lost two sons in the conflict against Israel in past years and carries great weight in the movement, has always sought to maintain good ties with Iran.
But he also says Hamas, which is estimated to have around 30,000 well-equipped fighters, has survived difficult situations in the past when U.S.-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt and kept Gaza in a vice.
“We became very strong in an era where the entire surrounding environment was hostile,” he said. “Our resistance relies mainly on God and also on its capabilities. History proved we have always emerged stronger every time.”