Hamas struggles to cope with regional and internal challenges
Hamas is experiencing internal divisions and external threats as the organization struggles to adjust to rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics in the region.
On July 1, Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) which used to be known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, orchestrated a string of attacks in the peninsula that left over 60 Egyptian soldiers dead. Israeli officials accused Hamas of cooperating with the group.
Israeli Major-General Yoav Mordechai said in an interview that Hamas commanders have provided training, organization, armament, and medical assistance to members of the Sinai group. Hamas’ military wing has refuted these accusations.
Nevertheless, this alliance of convenience has reportedly contributed to fragmentation within Hamas. While the military arm of Hamas supports working with Wilayat Sinai, the political arm, under the leadership of exiled Hamas head Khaled Meshal, opposes the arrangement.
Hamas’ political arm has worked to improve relations with Egypt’s government, and has also quietly engaged in contact with the Israeli side. Improving relations with the government in Cairo is a priority for Hamas’ political leadership due to the evolving dynamics of the broader region.
In the past, Iran was a major financial backer of Hamas, but support has dwindled due to Hamas’ refusal to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Tehran’s focus on the conflict in Syria and ongoing fighting in Iraq.
Moreover, despite reports of warming relations between Hamas and Iran over the past months, the recent nuclear deal signals a potential US-Iran rapprochement. Thus significant, long-term Iranian assistance to Hamas is unlikely. At the same time, Egyptian efforts to close down tunnels into Gaza cut off Hamas from supplies and financial resources the group considers critical.
Left with few options, Hamas opted to attempt to mend ties with Cairo and reach out to Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia.
Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Egyptian officials met with Hamas leaders in Qatar and reportedly agreed to some concessions, including a pledge from Hamas not to use tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt for operations in exchange for the limited opening of official crossings between Gaza and Egypt.
The recent allegations of cooperation between group’s military arm and Wilayat Sinai, which is conducting terror attacks aimed at the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, could undermine these political efforts at reconciliation between Cairo and Hamas.
The accusations of collaboration with the IS affiliate in Sinai and the internal divisions within Hamas come at a time when the organization is facing challenges at home. Local extremist Islamist groups who sympathize with IS conducted a series of small-scale attacks within Gaza aimed at Hamas.
While the attacks thus far have not demonstrated a capability to significantly threaten Hamas’ position in Gaza, they do signal that the group’s dominance over political life in the Gaza Strip may be eroding.
Moreover, with these groups occasionally firing rockets at Israel, they could also ultimately jeopardize Hamas’ informal cease-fire with the Israeli government.
Beyond Gaza, the group is also facing challenges when it comes to its difficult relationship with rival Palestinian political movement Fatah, which is in power in the West Bank. Authorities in the West Bank arrested over 100 members of Hamas in a mass crackdown in early July, citing security concerns.
The arrests came following an escalation in violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the area, with shootings and stabbings taking place in the West Bank.
Hamas is still firmly in power in Gaza, but changing regional dynamics and internal challengers are putting increasing pressure on the organization.
Hamas does not share the political or ideological goals of IS-affiliated groups like the Wilayat Sinai, but cooperation for pragmatic purposes could significantly undermine both Hamas’ foreign policy goals and internal cohesion.
At the same time, small-scale attacks in Gaza are demonstrating that Hamas in not fully able to crack down on dissent at home, while arrests in the West Bank highlight the poor relations between Hamas and Fatah.
In a region that is changing rapidly, Hamas may end up fragmented and largely friendless. Ironically, for many of the organization’s opponents, this is far from an ideal outcome: a weak and divided Hamas is less predictable and potentially also less able to control chaos within Gaza itself.
Policymakers in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Riyadh are likely watching Gaza closely and hoping for Hamas to overcome some of its current challenges.