By Pinhas Inbari
Over the weekend, prominent Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar paid a visit to Tehran, where he repeated his commitment to the principle of armed resistance. At the same time, Hamas Diaspora leader Khaled Mashal, said nothing on the subject during his visit to Ankara, Turkey [pictured below with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan].
The visits, which came on the heels of the agreement to return to the 'lull' between Israel and Gaza, shed a light on the guiding motive behind the latest round of hostilities between the two neighbours. Essentially, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza went to great lengths to weaken and depose its exiled leader Khaled Mashal and turn Gaza into Hamas leadership center, thereby replacing the diaspora. Zahar’s public confirmation of the resistance principle was not intended for Western audiences. Instead, it challenged Khaled Mashal’s declarations of support for a popular intifada, a policy closest to PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas’ rejection of the resistance principle or the use of violence against Israel.
Last week’s hostilities between Israel and Gaza were triggered by the targeted killing of Zuheir al-Qaisi, the commander of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), who was planning on carrying out a terrorist attack on Israel from the Sinai. The PRC, with the aid of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), unleashed hundreds of rockets on Israel, confined to a range of 40 km. While Hamas itself did not participate in the launching of the rockets, its leadership in Gaza had prior knowledge of the planned attack on Israel via Sinai, as any cross-border activity must go through its operatives and receive Hamas’ approval.
Experts have correctly claimed that one of the reasons why Hamas has shown restraint during last week’s conflict was its new-found role as a governmental body responsible for Gaza’s citizens. Hamas is increasingly preoccupied with the civil aspects of its rule and is very much engaged in trying to resolve the many hardships weighing on the citizens of Gaza. For example, one of the major issues that concern Hamas is the supply of electricity and gasoline to Gaza, which has been difficult of late due to trouble in purchasing diesel and gasoline from Egypt.
However, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza is mainly motivated by its desire to be rid of Khaled Mashal, rather than taking care of its populace. In order to do so, Haniyeh and his camp have made it a point of contradicting Mashal, no matter his actions, so as to render him irrelevant. Accordingly, while Mashal makes moderate statements and attempts to come to an agreement with Abbas, the Gazan leadership is making radical statements and contradicting him on the issue of the popular intifada by insisting on an armed struggle.
Mashal’s attempts at striking roots in Sunni Arab states are mirrored by Gaza’s attempts to maintain links with Iran, as manifested by Zahar's and Haniyeh’s trips to Tehran. Hamas’ refusal to clash with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a continuation of its policy vis à vis Tehran - a direct supporter of the PIJ.
During his visit to Tehran, Zahhar met with Said Jaleeli, the Secretary of the Iranian Supreme Council of National Security. It is most likely that Zahar asked the Iranian to convince the PIJ to respect the 'lull', which is set to prevail until, presumably, war is declared on Iran. At that point, Hamas in Gaza will join forces with Iran.
Hamas’ Gazan leadership has been partially successful in achieving its goals. Khaled Mashal did not partake in the informal discussions in Cairo, which put an end to the hostilities and resulted in the current 'lull'. Their principle of standing by the military uprising, as opposed to the popular intifada, was reaffirmed.
However, the fact that Hamas did not actively participate in launching the rockets hinted at the possibility that in the distant future, after it has been recognized as the ultimate authority within Hamas, it might alter its policies.