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January 05, 2009

The Political Behavior of Hamas: Domestic Factors
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post last week on Hamas’s strategic calculations (and miscalculations). In interpreting the behavior of Hamas, Hezbollah, as well as nonviolent Islamist parties or even nonviolent secular parties, there are a variety of factors that should be taken into account. Now, yes, there may be some disagreement on whether assumptions about “rationality” are applicable to violent, ideological organizations, but it is irrelevant, at least for the purposes of this analysis, whether the actor’s goals are “irrational.” They may very well be but as Anthony Downs (one of the godfathers of rational choice) clarifies, “the term rational is never applied to an agent’s ends, but only to his means.” 

In this post, I will consider two domestic factors that affect and shape Hamas’s behavior and which may shed some light on where we are now and where we may be in the near future:

Domestic Competitors: A political organization has domestic competitors to both the right and left. Hamas’s major competitor to the left is Fatah. Hamas is not threatened by Fatah in any ideological sense, since the latter has no recognizable ideology. On the other hand, Hamas’s competitors from the “right” represent both political and ideological threats. They fall into two main categories: 1) domestic terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad, and 2) transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It is worth nothing that Hamas and al-Qaeda have not exactly gotten along since Hamas has prevented al-Qaeda, thus far, from gaining a foothold in Gaza.

The problem is that as radical, fringe groups threaten to become more powerful in polarizing times, then Hamas will feel a need to “outbid” them, or at least pre-empt their ideological threat. This pushes Hamas further to the right, a process which has already been taking place.

Internal Organizational Conflicts: Mass-based Islamist groups have, in recent years, become increasingly prone to internal factionalization. Hamas is no exception. I wrote earlier about divisions between Hamas “politicians” (the Gaza-based faction led by Ismail Haniyeh) and Hamas “militants” or “hardliners” (the Damascus-based faction led by Khaled Meshal). Conventional wisdom, to the extent that there is one, suggests that the longer the Gaza crisis persists, the stronger the Meshal faction will become. However, if Hamas gets pulverized, which now appears to be a distinct possibility, then Haniyeh and his allies will have the opportunity to reassert themselves, although what would be left to reassert themselves over is less clear. 

Let’s backtrack to the days leading up to the end of the cease-fire (Dec. 19). Meshal announced on Sunday December 14th that the ceasefire would not be renewed. Meanwhile, Gaza-based Ayman Taha, presumably with support from Haniyeh, said that Meshal’s positions were not binding on the organization. Meanwhile, Haniyeh, when asked to comment, did not second Meshal’s position and instead issued a non-committal statement. What this likely means is that the intensification of rocket attacks after December 19 was authorized by Damascus rather than Gaza. If Meshal could not bind his Gaza counterparts with his words, he could presumably bind them with actions. If this is indeed the case, then internal posturing within Hamas may have played a greater role in the current conflagration than is originally thought. If we recall the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, something similar happened. Two weeks before Hezbollah launched its cross-border attacks, Hamas launched an attack, killing two Israeli soldiers and kidnapping a third, Gilad Shalit. Some interpreted Hamas’s operation as a move orchestrated by Meshal to undermine Haniyeh, who has generally been more popular among Palestinians than any of the Damascus-based leaders.

I don’t have the answer to this, but a relevant question would be to what extent Israel has been targeting Meshal loyalists relative to Haniyeh loyalists in its airstrikes. I would imagine the emphasis is on the former, although I haven’t seen any figures to this effect. 


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