Hamas, from sidelines, speaks in different voices

As Arab ministers fly in to Washington for this week’s Annapolis conference on making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the most notable absentee is Hamas, winner of last year’s Palestinian general election.Though excluded from the talks, the Islamists remain key to any progress, and policymakers are poring over nuances in — and possible internal divisions over — Hamas’s stance on Israel, the West and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

Hamas’s violent seizure of control in the Gaza Strip in June led Abbas to dismiss it from government and re-engage with Israel and its Western allies in a process that has led to the talks in Annapolis — which even Hamas’s Syrian ally may attend.

There are some signs that Hamas’s isolation may be sparking internal debate, even if many analysts believe the voices of moderation are a minority compared to hardliners on both Hamas’s fronts of conflict — with Israel, and with Fatah.

Ahmed Youssef, long-time adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, who was dismissed as Palestinian prime minister in June, and former spokesman Ghazi Hamad have lately advocated negotiating with Israel and better relations with the United States.

Youssef also suggested Hamas should study any invitation to attend the Annapolis meeting.

Unsurprisingly, no such offer has been made and Hamas leaders, like their Iranian allies, have condemned the conference and Arab states’ decision to join in.

Analysts say these differences in part reflect geography — Hamas figures in the West Bank, exposed to Fatah reprisals, have been more conciliatory than more conservative Gazans. And some nuances may be a deliberate tactic to sound out reactions.

FAULTLINE

But Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group think tank sees a real “faultline” between those whose priority is consolidating control in Gaza and others who do not want that to obstruct a renewal of power-sharing with Fatah.

Senior members of the Hamas hierarchy strongly deny any division and have insisted that Youssef and Hamad speak only for themselves. Youssef insists he is still an adviser to Haniyeh.

Hamad said in a leaked letter to his leaders that the Gaza takeover was a “grave strategic mistake”. He has also made efforts, so far rebuffed, to contact Israeli officials.

“It is a healthy thing for a movement to have different views within itself, but, in the end, we are all governed by the decision taken by the institution,” Youssef told Reuters.

Acknowledging the commitment to destroy Israel in Hamas’s 1988 founding charter, he said the West’s refusal to talk to it for that reason did not take recent developments into account.

“Israel wants to persuade the world Hamas is a terrorist organization. We want to tell the world they have to look at current Hamas policies and not read a historical document.”

Hamas’s official position is that it would offer Israel a long-term truce in return for a Palestinian state, he said.

Political analyst Hani Habib said any splits within Hamas were far from fundamental, but added:

“Hamas has always been better than other factions at hiding internal divisions. But recently it has became clear that there are camps inside Hamas as well as conflicts.”

While Haniyeh has denied any intention to try to take over the Fatah-dominated, Israeli-occupied West Bank, a senior figure, Mahmoud al-Zahar, has raised just that possibility.

STREAMS OF OPINION

Ami Ayalon, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet and a former intelligence chief, said assessing how much weight to give the voices of moderation within Hamas was always a subject of debate.

“It is clear that Youssef, as a theologian, and someone like Haniyeh, as a statesman, represent a more moderate stream,” Ayalon told Reuters.

“There are also evident divisions between ‘inner Hamas’ and ‘outer Hamas’,” he added, distinguishing between leaders such as Haniyeh in Gaza and the West Bank and exile chief Khaled Meshaal, in Syria.

Habib concluded that, however much interest Youssef, Hamad and others had prompted, the moderate voices lack influence: “These voices are still timid and limited in what they can do.

“The supporters of such a moderate tendency cannot make their views heard because of the dominance of the military wing and hardline leaders.”

Typical of those positions, Hamas’s armed wing vowed on Sunday to treat as “treason” any agreement with Israel that gave up Palestinian land, and to retake Jerusalem’s holy sites:

“The Qassam Brigades will follow in the footsteps of the martyrs and our battle with the enemy will continue as long the occupation exists,” the group said in a statement. “We will not lower our weapons until we enter the gates of al-Aqsa mosque.”

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