While the Forward’s unprecedented interview with Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook didn’t demonstrate any shift in Hamas’s policies, it provides some insight into Hamas’s internal politics. The organization is now badly divided because its Political Bureau, including Abu Marzook, had to abandon its long-standing headquarters in Damascus. The external leadership has been attempting to reintegrate Hamas into the mainstream Sunni Arab political sphere by cultivating ties with states like Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. The Gaza-based Hamas leadership has been strongly pushing back against these efforts and attempting to keep ties open with Iran.
Hamas’s de facto prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, was elected head of the Gaza Political Bureau in a secret vote this April. The secret election for membership in and leadership of Hamas’s external and politically pre-eminent Politburo is scheduled to take place soon. Abu Marzook may well have been doing some crafty campaigning by speaking to the Forward, and in the positions he adopted.
Highly controversial moves by the external Hamas leadership have been closely associated with current Politburo chief Khaled Meshal. He angered many in the movement, particularly in Gaza, by seemingly abandoning the relationship with Iran in favor of closer ties with Arab states; cutting a Qatar-brokered deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on terms highly favorable to the P.A., and repeatedly invoking the virtue of “popular resistance” as opposed to armed struggle.
Abu Marzook may well be trying to position himself as a compromise candidate between Gaza-based leaders, whose policies wouldn’t be appealing to most Arab governments, and Meshal, who is seen by many as having gone too far too quickly. In his interview, Abu Marzook presented himself as pragmatic and flexible, and ready to reach out to the West, including Jewish Americans — positions that would appeal to Arab governments and relative moderates in Hamas. But he was categorical in insisting on Hamas’s core positions of not recognizing Israel, not seeking a conflict-ending agreement but rather an open-ended truce, and the centrality of armed struggle — stances that would reassure hard-liners, including Gaza-based leaders. The Forward noted that he was “at pains to knock down suggestions in numerous media outlets that Hamas is preparing to abandon armed resistance against Israel in favor of mass popular resistance.” Given the sharp contrast with some highly controversial comments in favor of popular resistance by Meshal, Abu Marzook may well be trying to distinguish himself from his former deputy and send the message that while he recognizes the need for Hamas to adapt to new realities, his approach will be more palatable to the leaders in Gaza and to the hard-liners.
Meshal has said he won’t run for re-election as leader of the Political Bureau, but most observers expect he will. If Meshal does run, Abu Marzook might be trying to position himself as a compromise candidate. If Meshal doesn’t, Abu Marzook might be presenting himself as simply the most important and visionary of Hamas’s current leadership. Either way, it reads very much like some pretty crafty electioneering.
Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at Ibishblog.com.