Sunday, May 15, 2011

Can Hamas Leopard Change Its Spots?

By Crispian Balmer    
This commentary was published in The Kuwait Times on 15/05/2011
The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has felt the political winds shift across the Middle East and is bending with them, making peace with its secular rival Fatah and trying to cool its conflict with Israel. Israel has ridiculed the idea that the Hamas leopard can ever change its spots, but analysts poring over a recent slew of interviews from the movement's senior leaders believe change is under way, wrought by upheaval across the Arab world. Despite the fact it looks secure in its coastal stronghold, the Gaza Strip, Hamas last month reached out to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs in the West Bank, and agreed to a surprise unity deal to end years of fierce feuding.

By doing so, Hamas effectively renewed its commitment to a ceasefire with Israel. No mortars or missiles have been fired out of Gaza since the accord was announced on April 27 - a rare period of calm on one of the region's most dangerous borders. Hamas has also conspicuously failed to provide wholehearted support to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who faces the worst civil unrest of his 11-year rule, despite the fact that he has harboured the Islamist group leadership for a decade.

The chilly relations have raised speculation that Hamas might move its main regional office out of Damascus, which would take the group further out of Shiite Iran's orbit. It would strengthen ties with administrations that have good relations with the West, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. Growing signs that the Islamist group is considering moving out first originated in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily, which cited unnamed Palestinian sources for its report. "I think Hamas is serious this time. It is taking a chance and wants to be given a chance," said political analyst Hani Habib, who lives in Hamas-controlled Gaza. "I don't think players in the region and the rest of the world should worry about Hamas moving in a more moderate direction," he said.

Any suggestion that Hamas might be mellowing is firmly rejected by Israel, which points out that the group's founding charter clearly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel, like many of its Western allies, says Hamas is a terrorist organisation and suffered a PR failure when Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh hailed the slain Osama bin Laden as a "holy warrior" just before the unity deal with Fatah was signed. "Hamas has not changed its ideology or its policy, and it surely does not intend on agreeing to any kind of peace deal with the State of Israel," the outgoing head of Israeli spy agency Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, said in a speech this month.

At most, he told an audience in Tel Aviv, Hamas "may agree to a ceasefire which it will use to build up its power". Interestingly, other Hamas leaders swiftly distanced themselves from Haniyeh's warm praise of bin Laden, who was killed by US soldiers in Pakistan. "Concerning bin Laden, everyone knows Hamas has differences with Al-Qaeda ... especially (its) operations targeting civilians," Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal told France 24 TV. Meshaal has given more interviews in the past several weeks than he has done in the past several years, apparently eager to show the world exactly where Hamas stands on Middle East peace.

Although he stopped short of recognising Israel, he repeatedly stated that he wanted to establish a Palestinian state along pre-war, 1967 borders, implicitly suggesting that Hamas was ready to accommodate the reality of Israel. He also said that he would henceforth consult with more moderate Palestinian factions over how to confront Israel, suggesting that he would no longer attack without consensus. Another Hamas official, Sami Abou Zuhri, told Le Monde daily that observers should not focus on Hamas's uncompromising 1988 charter, but rather judge the group on the words of its leaders.

All this falls well short of the criteria laid down by the peacemaking Quartet - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - which says Hamas must recognise Israel and renounce violence if it wants to be accepted as a peace partner. However, unlike Israel, which immediately withheld tax funds from the Palestinian Authority in response to the unity deal, the European Union and the United States are biding their time, no doubt hoping that Hamas is indeed undergoing a transformation.

Palestinian analysts believe the group has been forced into a re-think because of the Arab uprisings which have rattled its sanctuary in Syria and strengthened its "parent", the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, long suppressed under Hosni Mubarak. "One key element that forced Hamas to ... look more moderate is the unfolding events in Syria and the Arab world," said Samir Awad, a political analyst at the West Bank Birzeit university. "Hamas cannot support a Syrian regime which is slaughtering its people. It is in such an embarrassing position.

Hamas has denied it is considering leaving Damascus, but sources have said it might open new offices elsewhere. Any move from Syria would take Hamas further out of Iran's camp and back into the broader Arab fold, aligning more closely with influential Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which used to help fund the group before Washington objected. It is undoubtedly too early to say where the Arab Spring will lead Hamas and no one expects it to be sitting around the negotiating table with Israel anytime soon. But its every move is being scrutinised and supporters are promoting its cause.

Let me give you a very clear message. I don't see Hamas as a terror organisation," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the US PBS this week - a strong and significant endorsement from the only Muslim member of NATO. "It is a resistance movement trying to protect its country under occupation," he added, in comments that will have delighted Hamas but further eroded Turkey's strained ties with Israel. - Reuters

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