The ongoing violence in Syria is forcing the Palestinian Hamas to strike a new path. Initial steps indicate that the group will follow a more pragmatic course in the future.
Already in January, things in Syria had gone too far for Hamas. Even the most loyal allies could no longer accept the violence which the regime under President Bashar al-Assad was exerting on its own people.
There was no need for complex considerations to reach one simple conclusion: anyone who remained on Assad's side would ruin its reputation in the Arab world for years to come - possibly even irreparably. There was only one option: to distance themselves from a man who is apparently willing to impose the greatest possible damage to his country and his people on the way to his political demise.
In January 2012, the Hamas leadership in exile under Khaled Mashaal left its longtime base in Syria because of this. Since then, he and Ismail Haniyeh, who leads Hamas out of Gaza, are in search of new allies.
They have been travelling through the entire region for talks with decision-makers in the most significant countries. A great many doors have been opened for them and many countries come into question as a new home base in exile for Hamas: Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain and also Turkey.
The friendly welcome isn't selfless, though, said Maximilian Felsch, a political scientist at Beirut's Haigazian University. It was true that Hamas could not finance itself by its own means and therefore continued to be dependent on strong partners. But since Hamas has broken off ties to the Syrian regime and therefore also indirectly to Iran, it has become an interesting partner for many countries.
"These states consider themselves in a conflict with Iran, which is why they are now courting Hamas," Felsch told DW. "Hamas appears to want to join this camp now."
Agreement on a new course
The Hamas leadership has apparently reached a consensus on the group's new direction. Whereas there was still talk of a possible dispute between Haniyeh and Mashaal at the beginning of the year, the two men have apparently settled their differences in the meantime.
"I can't observe any major conflict between Haniyeh and Mashaal," Felsch said. "When Mashaal left Damascus, Haniyeh immediately supported him." This did not mean, however, that there would not be any more disputes on the group's future political course within Hamas.
Palestinian civil rights activist and politician Mustafa Barghouti agreed that there was a conflict over policy, but said that this difference of opinion was a good thing.
"The fact that they have differences internally is of course a reflection of change," Barghouti, who is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, told DW. "In my opinion, this is a healthy sign because it shows that change is taking place." He said in the end, the majority would support the new direction of Hamas.
In fact, Hamas hardliners will probably have no other choice than going along with the new course. Though the group has become a desired partner for Sunni-led countries since its break with the Assad regime, this partnership calls for significant changes from Hamas. Felsch said that Sunni governments supported the Middle East peace process. Hamas could therefore not oppose it as vehemently as it did during the period of close ties to Syria and Iran.
"Hamas was opposed to the peace process," Felsch said. "For this reason, it wasn't able to reach an agreement with the PLO." But that is changing at present. Barghouti, who has been closely accompanying the rapprochement between the political leadership in the West Bank and in Gaza, named three points in which Hamas had "definitely" changed its position.
"First, they accept the principle and the solution based on two states, second they are accepting popular non-violent resistance, and third - and this is still to be tested - they said that they are ready to accept a democratic election system."
Pragmatic role of religion
The change of course which Hamas has taken also brings up questions of its religious self-image. Up to now, the Sunni organization had no problems closing ranks with Shiite partners. The common antagonism towards Israel was the stronger bond. But if politics were to take an overriding role over religion, which significance would questions of faith play for Hamas in the future?
Felsch said Hamas was exploiting Islam for pragmatic reasons. Religion was a unique feature for the group as compared to the united powers in the PLO.
"It can distance itself from them through religion and by declaring that revolutionary ideas today no longer come from the left camp," Felsch said. "Rather, Hamas asserts that Islam also possesses revolutionary potential, namely Islamism as a political form of Islam."
No political extremism
The redirection of Hamas also fits in the political landscape of the Palestinian territories, Barghouti said. The political leadership in both regions, within Fatah and Hamas alike, were progressively more aware that the Palestinian population was growing tired of the hitherto existing ideologies.
"I believe the society does not like extremism and wants a balanced approach," he said. Palestinians were aware of the lack of democracy in the Palestinian territories and yearned for more democracy. For this reason, the population welcomed a secular approach, as it gave hope for a positive development.
"There's a lot of worry about the fact that there's very little space for democratic practice due to the concentration of power in the executive authority whether in West Bank or in Gaza," Barghouti said.
The Arab Spring has led to dramatic changes in large parts of the region. It has long arrived in the Palestinian territories, as well. Though it hasn't set any spectacular processes into motion, it is still effective.
Impulses in particular from Syria are flowing into both areas, which are significantly changing the political landscape. Hamas has changed under the impression of Syrian violence - maybe even been forced to change. The impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however, cannot be anticipated yet.
Author: Kersten Knipp / sac
Editor: Michael Knigge