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Light at the End of their Tunnels? Hamas & the Arab Uprisings

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[The following report was issued by International Crisis Group on 14 August 2012.] 

Light at the End of their Tunnels? Hamas & the Arab Uprisings 

Executive Summary 


Hamas never has faced such large challenges and opportunities as presented by the Arab uprisings. It abandoned its headquarters in Damascus, at much cost to ties with its largest state supporter, Iran, while improving those with such US allies as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. Asked to pick sides in an escalating regional contest, it has sought to choose neither. Internal tensions are at new heights, centering on how to respond to regional changes in the short run. Leaders in the West Bank and exile tend to believe that with the rise to power of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in particular and the West’s rapprochement with Islamists in general, it is time for bolder steps toward Palestinian unity, thereby facilitating Hamas’s regional and wider international integration. The Gaza leadership by contrast is wary of large strategic steps amid a still uncertain regional future. These new dynamics – Islamists’ regional ascent; shifting US and EU postures toward them; vacillation within their Palestinian offshoot – offer both Hamas and the West opportunities. But seizing them will take far greater pragmatism and realism than either has yet shown.

The Arab uprisings hardly could have caused a more stark reversal of Hamas’s fortunes. In the stagnant years preceding them, it had been at an impasse: isolated diplomatically; caged in economically by Egypt and Israel; crushed by Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank; warily managing an unstable ceasefire with a far more powerful adversary; incapable of fulfilling popular demands for reconciliation with Fatah; and more or less treading water in Gaza, where some supporters saw it as having sullied itself with the contradictions of being an Islamist movement constricted by secular governance and a resistance movement actively opposing Gaza-based attacks against Israel.

Facing reduced popularity since the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections that brought it to power, Hamas had to contend with criticism from without and within, the latter accompanied by defections from a small but important group of militants who left to join groups more committed to upholding Islamic law and to engaging in attacks against Israel. All in all, the movement could take comfort in little other than that Fatah was doing no better.

The Arab revolts seemed to change all that. Positive developments came from across the region: the toppling of Fatah’s strong Arab ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; the rise in Egypt of Hamas’s closest supporter and mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood; the opening of the Gaza-Sinai crossing at Rafah, control of which the former Egyptian regime had used to pressure, constrict and impoverish what it perceived to be Gaza’s illegitimate rulers; the empowerment of Islamist parties in other countries; growing instability in states with large Islamist oppositions; and the promise of a new, more democratic regional order reflecting widespread aversion to Israel and its allies and popular affinity with Hamas. As Hamas saw it, these and other events promised to profoundly affect the advancement of each of its primary goals: governing Gaza, weakening Fatah’s grip over the West Bank, spreading Islamic values through society; ending its diplomatic isolation, and strengthening regional alliances in opposition to Israel.

Yet, regional changes also have come at a cost. Above all, the uprising in Syria, where its political bureau had been based for more than a decade, presented the movement with one of the greatest challenges it has faced, tearing it between competing demands. On the one hand, the movement had to weigh the gratitude felt to a regime that had supported it when nearly all other Arab countries had shunned it, the cost of breaking relations with a regime still clinging to power, and the risks entailed in alienating Iran, its largest supporter and supplier of money, weapons and training. On the other hand, Hamas considered its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Sunni Arabs more generally, as well as its indebtedness to the Syrian people, who had long stood with the movement. Hovering over these were its obligations to Syria’s hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who could pay with their homes and lives for the decisions made by some of their political leaders.

Difficult as the external balancing act has been, the Arab uprisings also have forced upon the movement a no less trying challenge by bringing to the surface and exacerbating internal contradictions and rifts among its varied constituencies. The impasse at which Hamas had been stuck before the Arab upheavals allowed the movement to keep its many differences largely beneath the surface; with few significant opportunities before it, no contest among visions needed take place. But once Hamas found itself in a dramatically altered environment with novel challenges and possibilities, longstanding tensions came to the fore and new forms of friction emerged. Broadly speaking, these reflect several interrelated factors: the group’s geographic dispersion and its leadership’s varied calculations, caused by differing circumstances (in Gaza, prisons, the West Bank or outside); ideological distinctions, particularly albeit not exclusively related to varying assessments of the impact of the Arab upheavals; roles in the movement’s political, military, religious and governance activities; and pre-ex­ist­ing personal rivalries.

The contest within Hamas has played out most vividly and publicly over the issue of Palestinian reconciliation. That is because it is a primary demand of Palestinians and touches on many of the most important strategic questions faced by the movement, including integration within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), control of the Palestinian Authority, the status of security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, the formation of a joint national strategy with Fatah and Hamas’s political endgame with Israel.

Hamas’s differences over national strategy, particularly over how far to go in reconciliation negotiations, stem in large part from contrasting perceptions of what near-term effects the Arab uprisings will have on the movement. These in turn have been shaped by the distinct first-hand experiences of the leaderships in Gaza and, until recently, Damascus. Broadly speaking, the strategic divide corresponds to two views, themselves related to two different sets of interests: that, on one hand, because regional changes are playing largely to Hamas’s favor, the movement should do little other than hold fast to its positions as it waits for the PA to weaken, economic conditions in Gaza to improve and its allies to grow in strength, and that, on the other, it should take this rare occasion to make tough decisions that might bring about significant long-term gains.

The international community has a stake in the choices Hamas ultimately makes. The movement will continue to play a vital role in Palestinian politics, affecting the prospect of renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well as their odds of success. Reuniting the West Bank and Gaza is not only desirable, it also is necessary to achieving a two-state settlement. And territorial division, coupled with Gaza’s persistent economic isolation, contains the seeds of further conflict with Israel. For these and other reasons, the world – and the West in particular – must do more than merely stand on the sidelines as Hamas wrestles over its future. Instead, the United States and Europe should test whether they can seize the opportunity presented by two related developments: first, the rise to power (notably in Egypt) of Islamist movements that are keen on improving relations with the West, that crave stability and are signaling they do not wish to make the Israeli-Palestinian issue a priority; second, the intense internal debates taking place within Hamas over the movement’s direction.


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