Vol. 11, No. 4 June 16, 2011
- The recent overt confrontation between Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Gaza, and Damascus-based Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Mashaal reflects underground currents feeding the tension within the Hamas leadership in Gaza and Syria.
- Al-Zahar is demanding that Hamas-Gaza be given more weight in decision-making, while the Hamas leadership abroad contends that the center of power should remain outside of Palestine.
- Since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Hamas’ decisive victory in the parliamentary elections of 2006, and Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza in June 2007, the Hamas government has gained significant political and economic power. It conducts foreign relations and imposes taxes on imports from Israel and from Egypt which have become remarkable revenue sources. This has weakened the dependence of Hamas-Gaza on the Hamas leadership abroad.
- In addition, the consolidation of the Hamas regime in Gaza, where the main military forces of the al-Qassam Brigades are stationed, has gradually changed the balance of power inside Hamas. Al-Zahar challenged Mashaal’s authority to lead the movement, arguing that the center of power should move from abroad to “inside” Palestine. Fatah underwent a similar process after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, which lead eventually to a majority of the leadership living in the Palestinian territories.
- Mashaal intentionally refrained from directly referring to the challenge posed by al-Zahar, probably to avoid granting him status as an equal contender for the leadership. The current main interest of Mashaal and his colleagues is to promote reconciliation with Fatah in order to pave the way for Hamas to join the PLO and take over the organization that is recognized internationally as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Mahmoud al-Zahar Challenges Khaled Mashaal
The controversy inside the Hamas leadership recently became public after a series of statements by Hamas political bureau member and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahmoud al-Zahar in Gaza, who personally challenged Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Two interviews with al-Zahar provoked an uproar in Hamas ranks, particularly his blatant criticism of Mashaal’s speech after Fatah and Hamas representatives signed the reconciliation agreement in Cairo (May 4, 2011), which was interpreted by al-Zahar and others as readiness to authorize the Palestinian Authority to hold peace talks with Israel.
Asked by the Palestinian daily al-Quds (May 17, 2011) for his reaction to Mashaal’s statement, al-Zahar said:
The position of the [Hamas] movement regarding the negotiations and the resistance has not changed. We’re in favor of the way of resistance, and the way of negotiations was and still contradicts the position of the majority of the Palestinian people, who voted for Hamas in the 2006 general elections. Today, there is someone saying that we’re giving Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] the option to hold a new round of negotiations [with Israel]. We did not agree to the negotiations and we did not encourage him [Abbas] to hold negotiations. On the contrary, we embarrassed him day and night on this issue of negotiations. Therefore, what happened on the day in which the reconciliation agreement was signed was not agreed upon [within Hamas], we don’t recognize it and I think that it does not express the position of the movement, whose platform is based on resistance, not negotiations….
We did not agree to these statements and we were surprised when it was said. The world should know that there was no change in the position of the movement regarding resistance, as it is the only way. We can only negotiate issues within the framework of resistance.1
Al-Zahar also criticized Musa Abu Marzouq, Hamas’ second in command, who abstained from backing Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh after Haniyeh denounced the killing of Osama bin Laden, describing him as “a Muslim mujahid [jihad warrior].”2 Abu Marzouq told al-Arabiya TV that Haniyeh did not express the official position of Hamas, but rather “his personal feelings.”3
In the al-Quds interview, al-Zahar supported Haniyeh’s stance. “We regard anyone who fights the occupation as a mujahid and a fighter, and primarily as one who adopts an Islamic outlook,” al-Zahar said. “We disagree with bin Laden on his modus operandi and oppose moving the battlefield to the U.S. and Europe, but we will never accept the American position.”4
Al-Zahar repeated his criticism of Mashaal in another interview with the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, referring to the roots of the controversy between him and the Hamas leadership based in Syria. “We had no knowledge of Khaled Mashaal’s position, no one consulted us regarding it and therefore this position is unclear,” al-Zahar told al-Akhbar.
We’ve never given Fatah an option or authorization to hold negotiations on our behalf or on behalf of the Palestinian people. Our platform stands against negotiations [as these were held], because it is a waste of time. Actual experience proves that. Since the Madrid conference twenty years ago and until now, we’re still hearing about negotiations, negotiations, negotiations – and the scandals of the negotiating team headed by Saeb Erekat. This is public knowledge and known to all. Anyone who says that we authorized [the PA] or that we will authorize it to hold further negotiations does not represent the position of the movement.
Referring to media reports (later officially denied) that Hamas is considering transferring its headquarters from Damascus, al-Zahar said: “The real center of the Hamas movement is located in the occupied land and its real weight is there. Blood was spilled there, the leadership is there, and the complementary part [of the Hamas leadership] is outside [of Palestine]. This issue [of transferring Hamas offices from Damascus] is being deliberated. Circumstances have divided the movement’s leadership into several locations and we have to discuss it. This is a legitimate issue and from time to time a review is conducted in order to assess the drawbacks and advantages of the developments occurring around us.” Asked whether he meant to say that Mashaal will return to Gaza, al-Zahar said: “I didn’t mean that. However, anyone who wants to return to Gaza is welcome. Gaza is open. Even Fatah members, who did not commit crimes after 2007 and wanted to return, have come back, and we have many other examples of that.”5
Hamas Leaders in Syria Push Back
The Hamas leadership in Syria reacted with discontent to al-Zahar’s explicit criticism. Hamas’ political bureau, its supreme leadership forum, convened on June 1, 2011, and issued the following statement:
The political bureau of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) convened on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, in Damascus to discuss several important political issues, particularly Palestinian reconciliation and its actual implementation, in coordination with the brothers of the Fatah movement and Palestinian organizations. In addition, [the political bureau] discussed the issue that provoked interest in the media regarding statements and comments on the speech of brother Khaled Mashaal, the head of the political bureau of the movement, at the reconciliation ceremony in Cairo. In this regard, the political bureau emphasizes the following:
- First, the statements made by brother Khaled Mashaal, the head of the political bureau of the movement, reflect and represent the movement’s positions and its principles, and any other statement from any source contradicting them does not represent the movement and its institutions.
- Second, the statements made by the head of the political bureau and the members of the political bureau represent the movement and its positions. The political bureau is the only authorized body to interpret or amend the statements of the head of the political bureau and its members if there is a need.6
The absence of al-Zahar from the Hamas political bureau meeting in Damascus, even though he is a full-fledged member, speaks for itself. In media interviews, al-Zahar tried to downplay his absence, explaining that it had nothing to do with the internal controversy and that he was visiting Algeria at the time.7
After the Hamas political bureau meeting and its unanimous support of Mashaal, al-Zahar changed his tone. He said that the diversity of positions is a sign of a robust movement and accused media outlets of inflating the issue. “Disagreements exist in all organizations, but what differentiates us from other organizations is that decisions are made by [the vote] of the majority, and we still adhere to this way….The coming days will prove that we have overcome these disagreements,” al-Zahar said. He added that the controversy regarding Mashaal’s speech “is over and has no importance” and that “some people tried to re-provoke the issue in the media.”8
The overt confrontation between al-Zahar and Mashaal reflects underground currents feeding the tension within the Hamas leadership in Gaza and Syria. Senior Hamas members told al-Hayat (June 3, 2011) that the participation of Gaza representatives (Khalil al-Haya and Nizar Awdallah) in the recent meeting of the political bureau indicates the unity of Hamas and contradicts reports of a split, meaning that al-Zahar’s positions are exceptional and have no power to create an opposition that would undermine the authority of the current leadership.
They further argued that senior Hamas members in Gaza had criticized al-Zahar’s statements in favor of transferring Hamas headquarters from Damascus, saying that Syria has a special status in Hamas’ eyes in light of its unique support of Hamas for many years, and more than any other Arab state.
According to Hamas sources, al-Zahar also came into conflict with Mashaal regarding a diplomatic mission in Europe. Al-Zahar had accepted an invitation by Daniel Roch, Swiss special delegate to the Middle East, to visit Switzerland a few days after the political bureau convened in Damascus. Hamas sources told al-Hayat that al-Zahar did so without consulting Mashaal or asking for his consent, and therefore was not in a position to represent Hamas. Eventually, al-Zahar’s application for a visa was denied, probably because of Mashaal’s intervention, and his meeting with Roch was canceled.9
Khaled Mashaal has been refraining from any public reaction to al-Zahar’s direct attack. His only indirect response to al-Zahar’s allegations were in an interview with an Egyptian TV station a few hours after signing the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Mashaal explained that his speech at the ceremony did not include any consent to negotiations with Israel, but was based on the understanding that both sides concurred on joint decision-making. According to the reconciliation agreement, Hamas is ready to give Fatah another opportunity to realize by itself that there is no hope for the peace process and at the end of the day it will adopt Hamas’ strategy, which strives to change the regional balance of power to force Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.10
Hamas senior officials in Damascus and close associates of Mashaal launched a counter-attack on al-Zahar. Izzat al-Risheqa, a member of the Hamas political bureau, said in a press release that “the statement made by brother Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar was a mistake, does not represent the positions of the movement and its institutions, and is an exception to the traditions of the movement, according to which no one can publish announcements against the head of the movement and its leaders….[Al-Zahar] has no authority to interpret the statements of the movement’s leader or to amend them. The political bureau is the only body authorized to supply any clarifications or amendments, if any are needed, to statements made by the leadership.” Al-Risheq added, “there are no disagreements within the Hamas movement and it is characterized by a very responsible approach and its decisions are one and united.”11
Osama Hamdan, responsible for Hamas international relations, said that “al-Zahar’s statements reflect his personal views” and that “those who express the movement’s positions and policy are the head of the political bureau of the movement, its leaders and the brother members of the movement’s leadership.” He emphasized that “what the head of the political bureau [Mashaal] said was an accurate expression of its positions, as long as the political bureau of the movement has not published any amendment or clarification, as it is the only authorized body to issue clarifications to statements and positions of the members of the movement’s leadership.” He added: “On this basis, the statements made by brother Dr. al-Zahar are an exception to the traditions and rules followed by Hamas and are opposed to its policy.”
Senior Hamas officials told the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar (May 25, 2001) that they disassociate themselves from al-Zahar’s statements, arguing that his relations with the majority of the Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad are problematic because he tends to mix up his position as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hamas government in Gaza with being “Hamas Minister of Foreign Affairs.” According to these officials, al-Zahar has demanded that Hamas-Gaza be given more weight in decision-making, while the Hamas leadership abroad contends that the center of power should remain outside of Palestine, taking into consideration the siege on Gaza and the persecution of Hamas activists by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In a scolding tone, they said that al-Zahar does not belong to the generation of Hamas founders since he only joined Hamas in the late 1980s.12
Salah Bardawil, a senior Hamas official in Gaza and member of parliament, tried to mitigate the impression of severe controversy between the two sides, suggesting that diversity of opinion does not necessarily mean polarized positions. In this context, he argued that in his controversial speech, Mashaal “cast the responsibility to the Israeli side [and] the Palestinian Authority and their way of behavior in the negotiations as the cause of not achieving Palestinian objectives.” He further noted that “as we assume that the following months will be the decisive ones, Mashaal said that ‘we will see if the following months can bring about these objectives and we will not stand against them [Fatah].’ His statement contained an assumption and not an expression of positions of Hamas or of the head of the political bureau regarding the benefits of the negotiations. This is the meaning of what Dr. al-Zahar has said.”13 According to Bardawil’s interpretation, the dispute between al-Zahar and Mashaal is just semantic and does not deal with core issues.
In another press release, Bardawil said that the statements of al-Zahar and al-Risheq were made “in the framework of the diversity [of opinions] within the one organization,” denying any controversy in Hamas, which “has a united leadership inside [Palestine] and outside [Palestine] headed by Khaled Mashaal.”14 He added that Mahmoud al-Zahar is still a member of the political bureau and emphasized that the dispute is over.15
Analysis and Assessment
The controversy between Mahmoud al-Zahar and Khaled Mashaal that reached the public for the first time recently is the tip of the iceberg of the struggle for power within Hamas. Its roots lay in the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Hamas’ decisive victory in the parliamentary elections of 2006 that led to the establishment of a Palestinian government dominated by Hamas, and Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Since then, the Hamas government has gained significant political and economic power. It portrays itself as a contender to head the Palestinian Authority and as the pioneer of the struggle against Israel. The Hamas government conducts foreign relations and imposes taxes on imports from Israel (via the land crossings) and from Egypt (at the Rafah crossing and the tunnels) which have become remarkable revenue sources. In addition, part of the international financial support to Gaza is also funnelled to Hamas. These factors have weakened the dependence of Hamas-Gaza on the Hamas leadership abroad.
The consolidation of the Hamas regime in Gaza, where the main military forces of the al-Qassam Brigades are stationed, has gradually changed the balance of power inside Hamas. Al-Zahar not only debated with Mashaal over Hamas policy, but in fact challenged his authority to lead the movement, arguing that the center of power should move from abroad to “inside” Palestine, which bears the main burden of the struggle against Israel. The Fatah movement underwent a similar process after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, which lead eventually to a majority of the leadership living in the Palestinian territories.
Evidence of al-Zahar’s defiance is also to be found in the controversy over how Hamas should regard Osama bin Laden, and in al-Zahar’s act of independence when he intended to meet a senior Swiss diplomat without asking permission from Mashaal. Al-Zahar is probably not alone and it is possible that Ismail Haniyeh shares some of his views, as Haniyeh is supposed to lose his position as prime minister after a future unity government with Fatah is established.
The controversy also gives new insight into Mashaal’s status in Hamas. He is widely accepted as the leader, including by the military wing, but he lacks the aura of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder who was also its spiritual leader, or the charisma of Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, Yassin’s successor.
Mashaal ended this round with the upper hand. The Hamas leadership stood by him and backed his positions in the unequivocal statement by the political bureau after its Damascus meeting, which was also attended by representatives from Gaza. At the same time, al-Zahar did not receive any public support from his Hamas colleagues in Gaza and the West Bank, and he was forced to retreat, downplaying the disagreements.
However, the bone of contention remains. Al-Zahar is likely to try to seek support from other senior Hamas leaders, including those in the al-Qassam Brigades, in his demand for more weight in decision-making for Gaza.
Mashaal intentionally refrained from directly referring to the challenge posed by al-Zahar, probably to avoid granting him status as an equal contender for the leadership. The current main interest of Mashaal and his colleagues is to promote reconciliation with Fatah in order to pave the way for Hamas to join the PLO and take over the organization that is recognized internationally as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Apart from this strategic political objective, the future elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) of the PLO may affect the balance of power within Hamas. In accordance with the reconciliation agreement with Fatah, the elections will be held in the West Bank, Gaza, and “outside” Palestine. Delegates from “outside” Palestine are entitled to receive at least half of the seats in the PNC, and Gaza will receive a relatively small minority of seats, which may be reflected in its share of leadership.
The Hamas leadership abroad, that seeks to replace Fatah in leading the PLO and the Palestinian people, differentiates itself from the Hamas government by describing that government as responsible for running the affairs of Gaza. Sorting out relations with the Hamas leadership in the West Bank is also essential as the Hamas leadership abroad seeks to restrain al-Zahar and others who may consider supporting him.
The Arab Spring is another factor in the equation. Escalating instability in Syria, the long-time backbone of Hamas, may force the Hamas leadership to consider alternatives to their headquarters in Damascus. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has founded a new political party in preparation for the oncoming elections. The rising political power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother movement of Hamas, may play a greater role in Hamas politics. Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood has been closer to Hamas-Gaza, and during recent years relations have been even stronger, as seen in its transferring of financial support used for the purchase of weapons.
Negotiations over the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners may be hampered by the internal Hamas power struggle. Senior Israeli officials have already argued that the top commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, Ahmed Jaabari, is sticking to uncompromising positions and has thus thwarted a proposed deal. The Hamas leadership will probably find it harder to make concessions in the negotiations, fearing confrontation with hardliners. Al-Zahar’s move had no immediate or actual effect, but it represents a declaration of intent, which the leadership will have to consider in future decision-making, including on the issue of Gilad Shalit’s release.
The controversy within Hamas is focused on power, not on policy. Hamas still adheres to the principal of the liberation of historic Palestine and the destruction of Israel. The only field for maneuver lies in Hamas’ readiness to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines and to declare a temporary cease-fire (hudna), on condition that Israel opens its borders to absorb millions of Palestinians to resettle in its territory, which would mean the end of Israel and its transformation into a Palestinian state.
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8. http://www.alriyadh.com/2011/06/08/article639547.html; http://www.felesteen.ps/details/20884/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B3-%D8%AA%D8%A4%D8%AE%D8%B0-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%BA%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%AF-%D8%AE%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA.htm
9. http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/273732 http://aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=11875&article=624852&feature=
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Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.