On June 2, Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government in the Palestinian Authority after many months of reconciliation talks, with Hamas nominally dissolving its government in the Gaza Strip. The move represents the fruit of a long internal debate within the group’s higher echelons regarding its future course. Rather than adhering to the seven-year-old strategy of prioritizing exclusive control of “Fortress Gaza” with no serious effort to heal the rift with Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas leaders have now changed tack toward a different program: transplanting the Hezbollah model from Lebanon to Palestine.
For Hamas, this means integrating into the general political system while retaining independent, well-equipped armed forces and striving to maintain control of Gaza through its existing grip on local bureaucracy, its wide network of social institutions, and, of course, its 20,000 well-trained military cadres and security personnel.
The group has recruited no less than 50,000 employees to the public sector since its June 2007 military takeover of the territory. At the same time, Hamas seems determined to exploit the reconciliation agreement as a means of resuscitating its political organization and clandestine terrorist activities in the West Bank.
Outgoing Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh described the new formula best, declaring this week, “We leave the government but stay in power… We give up the chair but not the role we play.”
The shift in Hamas strategy — from emphasizing a monopoly of power in Gaza to reaching a deal that allows some PA presence there, and from harsh criticism of PA president Mahmoud Abbas to cautious cooperation with him — has been the result of agonizing soul searching among the group’s leaders. This internal questioning was spurred by several recent setbacks: the loss of a friendly Muslim Brotherhood regime in neighboring Egypt, the cessation of weapons smuggling through the Sinai Peninsula, the decline of financial subsidies from Iran and Qatar, and the growing resentment of Gaza inhabitants due to rising unemployment, economic hardship, and constant repression.
Amid these bleak circumstances, Hamas leaders held a number of meetings in recent weeks with Iranian officials in Tehran and Hezbollah leaders in Beirut. There, the group’s representatives were advised to adopt a more ambitious plan than merely defending Gaza, namely, by contesting Fatah in its own West Bank territory instead. Hezbollah’s modus operandi in Lebanon — which can be summed up as “add ballots to your bullets” — was pushed as a model to be emulated.
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