The Islamic militant movement Hamas takes up talks with its political rival Fatah after clarifying its leadership scuffle. But will Hamas give up its armed resistance?
Egypt, Iran, Qatar - the current travel itinerary of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is indicative of the change the movement is going through. Even the radical Palestinian organization is having to reposition itself in the changing Arab world.
This became particularly evident during Haniyeh's recent visit to Cairo.
"I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform," Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, told people who gathered at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque - much to the surprise of his supporters.
This is quite a departure for Hamas, which has for years been an ally of Syria and, by extension, of Iran. Meanwhile, the Hamas leadership in exile under Khaled Mashaal has left its longtime base in Syria because of the regime's crackdown on opponents there and is now settled in Qatar.
"Hamas has taken leave of the Syria-Iran axis and is approaching the more moderate, so-called pro-western regimes in the region," Maximilian Felsch, a political scientist at Beirut's Haigazian University, told DW.
In mid-February, Haniyeh travelled to Iran where he affirmed that Hamas would never recognize Israel's right to exist.
"The resistance will continue until all Palestinian land, including Jerusalem, has been liberated and all the refugees have returned," he said in Tehran.
That trip showed clearly that Haniyeh disagrees with the new course of Mashaal. A few days earlier, Mashaal had reached an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Doha, Qatar to form a unity government. Under the deal, Abbas will head the interim unity government and organize long-overdue general elections in the Palestinian territories.
The move is supposed to help overcome the long-lasting antagonism between Fatah and Hamas and end the Palestinian division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But Mashaal acted alone, signing the agreement without consulting the leadership in Gaza.
Hamas founding member Mahmoud Zahar called the deal "a mistake," saying there needed to be agreement between all leaders within the Hamas movement before they could join forces with Fatah.
"This is a competitive skirmish between the leadership in exile and that in the Gaza Strip," Felsch explained. "Both claim to speak for Hamas."
From Haniyeh and Zahar's point of view, Mashaal already overshot the mark back in November 2011, when he declared that Hamas would give up armed resistance and instead only embrace the idea of "popular protests" against Israeli occupation. In addition, Mashaal has reportedly been inclined to accept PLO resolutions which form a basis for all future negotiations with Israel.
Signs of the times
For years, Mashaal, Hamas' top leader in exile, was considered a hardliner who repeatedly helped the group's various factions reach consensus. But now he seems no longer interested in broad agreement. According to Felsch, the leader is under enormous pressure to make decisions in a very short period of time in order to set the future course for Hamas.
In the meantime, Mashaal and Haniyeh met in Doha and are inching toward one another. Haniyeh has also recognized that Hamas has to change if it wants out of its isolation. Felsch said he is also keen on presenting himself as a potential successor to Mashaal. The armed division of Hamas in Gaza has signaled that it will support Mashaal in all of his endeavors.
"As the government power in Gaza, Hamas has to adapt to reality," historian Yair Hirschfeld from the University of Haifa told DW. "That may lead to a certain amount of moderation, but it doesn't have to. I think it is a positive process, but it is hardly completed."
The strategic realignment of Hamas has enabled the resumption of talks about forming a government with Fatah. Reaching an agreement with Fatah - with Abbas at the helm - would mean that Western aid would continue flowing into the country. And since Haniyeh publicly aligned himself with the Syrian opposition, Qatar could become a new Hamas ally.
Changes at the helm
Israel is not at all pleased by the rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah.
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it very clear that he will not negotiate with a government that includes Hamas," Hirschfeld said. Hirschfeld added that he found it unlikely that Hamas and Fatah would reach agreement on a unity government in the near future.
Should a unity government of Fatah and Hamas energe, Germany and the West would also have to take a stand. This spring, the German-Palestinian steering committee is meeting in Berlin to discuss ways of supporting the development of a Palestinian state.
The Middle East peace Quartet - the UN, US, EU and Russia - continues to demand that Hamas recognize Israel and existing agreements, as well as completely renounce violence. Hamas had already agreed that Abbas can conduct negotiations with Israel in an interim government - but only as a temporary solution.
Felsch said he did not expect Hamas to recognize Israel. At most, the group could recognize that certain governmental agreements. Yet this didn't mean, Felsch added, that Hamas' behavior couldn't change in future.
Abbas has announced that he is not seeking reelection in this year's polls. This would increase Hamas' chances for greater power, if Fatah doesn't quickly put forward a suitable candidate.
Mashaal is reportedly entering the race for Hamas, although rumors are that Mashaal also has a Plan B to bring Hamas out of its isolation. One option would be for him to take over the helm at the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood - the group from which Hamas originally emerged. Mashaal, it is said, has keenly registered that the US and Europe are talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
And according to Felsch, there's no chance the leader will completely disappear from the political stage.
"He wants to construct a monument for himself by putting Hamas on a new track," Felsch said.
Author: Diana Hodali / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge