Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hamas' musical chairs - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

From Israel's perspective, Sinwar's election changes very little. Yet perhaps it serves as an advantage, exposing the true face of a Hamas leadership in Gaza

The election of Yahya Sinwar, a senior member of Hamas' military wing in Gaza, as the organization's leader in the coastal enclave -- while a subject of considerable interest in the Israeli press -- does not foretell a change in the terrorist organization's path or its approach to Israel.

The real power in the Gaza Strip has been in the hands of Hamas' military wing for quite some time regardless, and this has dictated how the organization conducts itself vis-a-vis Israel. Neither Sinwar's predecessor, Ismail Haniyeh, nor Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal decided whether to carry out terrorist attacks or abduction attempts, and they were not the ones who maintained the calm along the border with Israel in recent years. We can also assume that no one asked their opinion on strengthening ties with the Islamic State group's affiliate in the Sinai Desert, supposedly to combat Israel, but in actuality a move against the Egyptian armed forces deployed to the peninsula and along the Egypt-Gaza border.

And yet, in recent years Hamas has taken pains to separate its military wing from its political leadership, which heads the organization, manages its relations with the Arab world, Egypt in particular, and for all intents and purposes functions as a government, which the people living in Gaza can turn to regarding their day-to-day problems. Hamas likely did this for security purposes, to remove the threat of harm to its political leaders while at the same time allowing its military commanders to keep a low profile as protection from Israel.

But there was another aspect here. Hamas, like organizations similar to it, such as Hezbollah, had an interest in maintaining the facade where its political leaders, such as Haniyeh and Mashaal, present themselves as legitimate statesmen without any linkage to the terrorist activity in which the other members of their organization are involved; ergo positioning them as suitable partners in a Palestinian unity government, as worthy of recognition from the international community and even the Arab world and allowing them to pursue the organization's agenda and their own without paying any price.

It is quite possible that Hamas' internal dynamics, within the military wing and Gaza itself, propelled Sinwar and his cohort to vie for the organization's political leadership and no longer settle for simply having the final word at the table, certainly in regards to Israel, which was reserved for them on all matters regardless. It is also possible, however, that the election of Sinwar expresses the desire of many Hamas supporters for a change in leadership. To be sure, Haniyeh is a tired leader who is also suffering from health issues. 

Furthermore, during his prolonged tenure of over 10 years as the organization's leader and in essence "prime minister" in Gaza, the situation there has largely remained the same. Hamas has been unable to improve the economic situation for the enclave's residents, even in the slightest. In fact the opposite has been true; it appears the situation in the Gaza Strip is only getting worse.

What's interesting is that the desire for change was translated into a secret vote for a person identified with the military wing and the organization's uncompromising militant line, as if this avenue will lead to salvation. "Generals" sometimes change their views and soften their stance, but we cannot expect this to happen this time. The choice of Sinwar, who is also renowned for his hard-line Islamist views, is a testimony to the lack of hope and to the rising despair among many in Gaza, even among Hamas supporters, as it pertains to the quality of life they expect for themselves there.

From Israel's perspective, Sinwar's election changes very little. Yet perhaps it serves as an advantage, exposing the true face of a Hamas leadership in Gaza that can no longer present itself as a possible partner to the Palestinian Authority or as a responsible entity with which the international community can do business. 

Despite Sinwar's hostility toward Israel, as if Haniyeh and Mashaal were moderates in comparison, he was the one who signed off on the de facto cease-fire that has existed between Hamas and Israel for the past two years, and he is the one who has preserved the quiet along the border. But he has also overseen Hamas' efforts to restore its military strength, hoard missiles and dig tunnels, for the crucial day when the fight against Israel can resume. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, therefore, can expect new tidings from Gaza, certainly not from Sinwar and his cohort now leading Hamas.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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