In February last year, Khalid Mesha’al, head of the Hamas political bureau, relocated the group’s Damascus headquarters to Qatar.
The move was an unambiguous declaration that Mesha’al no longer supported his erstwhile ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who appeared to be on the brink of defeat by the opposition. By abandoning his ties with Damascus, Mesha’al also cut loose from Hezbollah and major Hamas funder and trainer Iran.
Mesha’al has now aligned Hamas with the so-called ‘Sunni Moderate’ camp — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — which supported the Syrian opposition. He also strongly embraced former president Mohammad Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt — Hamas has long-standing historical ties with the Brotherhood, having emerged from its Palestinian branch in 1987.
Unfortunately for Mesha’al, the unpredictable tides of war and the shifting sands of politics and diplomacy have conspired to wash him ashore on an island of his own making.
First: the military coup in Egypt dealt Mesha’al a heavy blow. The junta, led in all but name by Defence Minister General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, harbours a deep antipathy for the Brotherhood and is systematically eliminating it in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia backed the coup and shares Al Sissi’s view that Hamas is an extremist, military branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, Qatar — which supported the Mursi regime — also found itself diplomatically compromised by regime change in Cairo.
Second: Al Assad, whose demise at one point seemed inevitable, appears to have come through the bottleneck. He has washed his bloody hands, smoothed his hair, put on an immaculately tailored suit, adjusted his silk tie and presented himself to the world’s media for rehabilitation. At the same time, Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, is fronting a surprise rapprochement with the White House. Both Al Assad and the Iranian regime have adopted an unforgiving stance towards Mesha’al, whom they now accuse of treachery.
Third: The Egyptian military junta’s anti-Hamas stance has caused an economic catastrophe in Gaza. The army has destroyed around 1,200 smuggling tunnels which were a lifeline for the population, and for Hamas, which levied taxes on this clandestine industry. Telephone calls with my family in Gaza testify to increased hardship: Lack of subsidised fuel — which they used to obtain via the tunnels from Egypt — means that electricity generators cannot run and the Strip is mostly dark. My brother, a taxi driver, cannot work and my cousins, who have a small agricultural business, cannot water their fruit and crops because the pump, which extracts water from their underground well, runs on petrol too.
Hamas employs some 60,000 administrative and public sector staff which it cannot currently pay. In the past, cash to pay their $36 million (Dh132.4 million) monthly salary bill was smuggled in via the tunnels too. Unsurprisingly, the population of Gaza blames Hamas — and Mesha’al in particular — for their present suffering.
More radical young leaders
Fourth: Hamas itself is riven with power conflicts and two separate camps are emerging: One led by Mesha’al and a more hawkish one led by Mahmoud Zahar. The latter did not support Mesha’al’s move from Damascus to Doha and his camp perceives Mesha’al, ensconsed in a luxury hotel, as having forgotten Hamas’s raison d’etre: Resistance to Israel.
In addition, Hamas’s military wing, the Al Qasam brigade (responsible for most suicide bombings and firing rockets into Israel) is gaining power and influence under a new generation of more radical young leaders.
Besieged on all fronts and aware of his increasing isolation, Mesha’al has been attempting to repair the damage.
He has been engaging other Palestinian groups (such as Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) in power-sharing talks, apparently to no avail. On the eve of Eid Al Adha, Hamas Prime Minister Esmail Haniyah telephoned Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to urge ‘national unity’ and the renewal of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.
Mesha’al has also sought to appease the Egyptian junta with a U-turn on his opposition to Abbas’s presidential guard being redeployed at the Raffah crossing, which is an Egyptian pre-condition for allowing it to stay open.
In an attempt to return to the Syrian/Iranian fold, a Hamas delegation was dispatched to Tehran earlier this month, headed by political bureau member Mohammad Nassar. The visitors were received warmly and the Iranians offered to pave the way for the organisation to return to its Damascus base — a suggestion that Al Assad agreed to, with the caveat that Mesha’al would not be welcome.
Attempting to explain his support for the Syrian opposition, Mesha’al told the pro-Iranian Al Mayadin satellite channel that he believed peaceful protests to achieve “reform” were acceptable, but that “all guns should be directed at Israel”.
Sadly for the Hamas leader, this provoked Al Assad to reiterate (in an interview with a Lebanese paper) that Mesha’al had stabbed him in the back and the increasingly powerful Islamic Army in Syria to announce that they knew better than “a fighter from a five-star hotel” how to liberate Al Aqsa mosque.
I would be surprised if rumours of an impending visit by Mesha’al to Tehran are true. It is more likely that Tehran did not wish to offend by an outright refusal of the suggestion.
Mesha’al is still on his desert island and no ship flying the flag of Iran or Syria or Hezbollah or Egypt or Saudi Arabia is going to rescue him.
Sources suggest that Mesha’al was ready to hand over the reins of power for some time, but Mursi and the previous Emir of Qatar persuaded him to continue.
It now seems certain that his only exit from isolation will be on board a ship flying the flag ‘resignation’.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.