GAZA CITY – In the wake of revolutionary change in the Middle East, the forces of political Islam have scored one electoral victory after another. As the West grapples with the rapid rise of moderate Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, the issue of Hamas’s role in the Palestinian territories looms large. The signing of a new unity deal between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah party earlier this month has heightened an unprecedented struggle within Hamas over its future course as an Islamist movement. How the West responds could very well influence the outcome.
As events in recent weeks have proven, Hamas’s days of near-total isolation in the Middle East are over. While most Western governments continue to consider it a terrorist organization, in Arab capitals, political embargos have given way to engagement. In December, Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza, embarked on a tour of the Mediterranean that included stops in Tunis, Cairo, and Istanbul. In mid-February, he was warmly received in Qatar, Bahrain, and Iran.
This political outreach, however, has not emanated solely from Gaza. In January, Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas’s Damascus-based political bureau, embarked on a diplomatic initiative of his own, and was hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan – the first such visit in more than a decade. In February, Mashal crowned these efforts in Qatar with the signing of the new unity agreement with Fatah, which commits both Palestinian movements to a transitional government under Abbas’s leadership.
Ever since, disagreements within Hamas have been escalating, pitting the movement’s Diaspora leadership against the Hamas-led Gaza administration, which has openly rejected the unity deal. While personal ambitions certainly play a role in the tensions, what lies at the core is a fundamental conflict over Hamas’s character.