Hamas Policy Options Amidst Regional & Internal Change

Miguel Galsim is a final year student completing a double Bachelor of International Relations/Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies at the Australian National University, with an academic interest in non-state violence.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The Hamas Organisation’s purportedly softened political principles and its reshuffling of senior leadership figures has left the group fraught between a path towards further moderation and a road of continued, even elevated, violence.

Date Originally Written:  May 19, 2017

Date Originally Published:  June 12, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This options paper is written from the perspective of a senior policymaker within Hamas providing options to the political leadership of the movement.

Background:  On May 1, 2017, Hamas released a document of “General Principles and Policies[1]” that displayed an apparent toning-down of Hamas’ long criticised dogmatism, evident in its original 1988 charter.  The document is bereft of references to the Muslim Brotherhood, instead refers to Hamas’ enemies as Zionists and not Jews, and while not recognising Israel, outlines its recognition of a de-facto Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.  It is widely believed that the document is a device to bring Hamas out of the diplomatic cold.

At the same time, Hamas elected former Prime Minister of Gaza Ismail Haniyeh to head its political bureau on May 6, replacing the highly pragmatic and externally focused Khaled Mashal who was barred by internal regulations from running for another term.  It is also worth noting that prior to the release of the General Principles and Policies and the election of Haniyeh, in February Yahya Sinwar, a military figurehead and former Hamas counterintelligence chief, was elected to become Gaza’s Prime Minister.  Sinwar has 22 years of imprisonment experience under Israel.  Both Haniyeh and Sinwar are insiders in Hamas[2] – having extensive grassroots experience, particularly in Gaza – and have strong links with the military wing, the latter more staunchly.

Compounding Hamas’ internal shifts, regional unrest has deprived Hamas of its traditional backers in Syria and Iran[3], and the return of an anti-Islamist leadership in Egypt has imperilled Hamas supply chains into Gaza and hardened an already difficult border for civilians living under Hamas government.

Significance:  Such a complex situation, buffeted by the potentially countervailing forces of ideological moderation and an insider-oriented shift, creates an uncertain future for Hamas as Gaza’s Islamic-nationalist militant group.  With Hamas insiders now in charge, Gaza becomes a more prominent reference point for strategic thinking.  Accordingly, facing an increasingly dissatisfied populace weary from siege, attempting to preserve its popular support, and also looking to fill the cavities left by a hostile Egypt and a distracted Syria and Iran, Hamas’ next strategic choices will be crucial for its success in pursuing its goals, and at the very least, surviving as a movement.

Option #1:  Hamas allows military imperatives to drive its broader strategic thinking, resulting in a potential escalation of violent operations.

This option would be a conceivable outcome of the election of Sinwar and Haniyeh who, while following in their predecessor’s pragmatic footsteps, nonetheless have better military ties due to their experiences in Gaza.

Risk:  This option would be inflexible and incognizant of the external factors fuelling grievances within their controlled territory.  Increased attacks on Israel would invite disastrous Israeli offensives on Gaza and substantial damage to the group’s own assets, as Hamas has learned to expect.  This would result not only in an immediate danger to Gaza’s populace, but a tightened economic blockade.  A militaristic mindset would also render Hamas even more isolated from global diplomatic support and hostile to Egyptian interests – a subsequent thinning of material and financial resources into Gaza would be the likely result.  These factors would consequently worsen the humanitarian situation in Gaza, withering Hamas’ popular support base.  Simultaneously, increased Hamas violence would give Fatah extended pretexts to dismantle Hamas cells in the West Bank.

Gain:  Emphasising its military needs would help Hamas retain the leadership of violent resistance against Israel and sustain its main differentiator from its rivals in Fatah who renounced armed resistance in 1993.  For certain sectors of the population, militancy would be a pull factor towards the group.  Enhanced coercive capabilities would also assist Hamas’ crackdown on hostile Salafi elements in Gaza and, if not applied haphazardly, act as deterrence against hostile manoeuvres from Fatah and Israel.  Additionally, a focus on military capacity could potentially reinvigorate Hamas’ relationship with Iran as the military wing’s traditional patron[4], as well as a provider of armaments.

Option #2:  Hamas pursues a course of broader political moderation and resorts only to limited, targeted applications of violence.

Given the publication of Hamas’ new political document, the path of moderation is also a viable option.  Haniyeh may be open to pragmatic change, despite his commitment to resistance[5], given the hard lessons he would have learnt first-hand from conflagrations in Gaza.  This should not be taken as disarmament, however – such a move would be disastrous for Hamas’ popularity, territorial control, and deterrence abilities.  Furthermore, it cannot be considered an option as heightened discontent within the military wing would simply endanger the integrity of the entire Organisation.

Risk:  Political compromise may widen rifts between the moderates and conservatives within Hamas, with champion hardliner Mahmoud al-Zahar already stating to the public that the new platform was an “extension” and not a “replacement” of the original, maximalist charter[6].  A more restrained Hamas could also result in external criticisms of Hamas’ failure to carry the banner of resistance, and may inspire a shift in some grassroots support towards more radical elements in Gaza.  Traditional partners in Syria and Iran may also become more estranged.

Gain:  The clear benefit of moderation is its potential to open regional and global diplomatic channels.  Doing so keeps Hamas open to a wider array of policy options and could lead to the future easing of terrorist classifications in some countries, thereby alleviating constraints on its financial flows.  Additionally, an eased political position may boost public appreciation for Hamas’ efforts by alleviating the blockade of Gaza from Israel and Egypt, and giving Israel fewer reasons to launch high-intensity offensives on Gaza.  Concurrently, opting for more surgical military operations – particularly given Sinwar’s sophisticated understanding of Israel, his ability to act with moderation, and the potential that he will work sanguinely with the politburo[7] – would retain Hamas’ coercive edge while not instigating another round of heavy fighting.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  The Islamic Resistance Movement “Hamas”. (2017, May 1). A Document of General Principles and Policies. http://hamas.ps/en/post/678/a-document-of-general-principles-and-policies

[2]  See Ghassan Khatib’s comments in Mitnick, J & Abualouf, R. (2017, May 6). Hamas selects popular Gaza politician Ismail Haniyeh as its new leader. Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-hamas-leader-haniyeh-20170506-story.html

[3]  Uthman, T. (2013, March 4). Hamas and the Arab Spring: Arguments on gains and losses (Arabic). Namaa Center for Research and Studies, http://nama-center.com/ActivitieDatials.aspx?id=223

[4]  Mounir, S. (2017, April 23). The predicament of regional options for Hamas after the victory of Yahya Sinwar (Arabic). Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, http://acpss.ahram.org.eg/News/16285.aspx

[5]  Author unknown. (2017, April 30). Haniyeh: Two important merits are coming (Arabic). Shasha News, https://www.shasha.ps/news/263298.html

[6]  Author unknown. (2017, May 17). The new document splitting Hamas from the inside (Arabic). Al-Arab, http://bit.ly/2rvj7El

[7]  Caspit, B. (2017, February 15). Why some in Israel are wary of Hamas’ new Gaza boss. Al-Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/israel-gaza-new-hamas-leader-yahya-sinwar-security.html

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