In February 2012 Ismael Haniyeh, Prime Minister of Hamas in the Gaza strip, delivered a speech at Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque. In this speech he broke with the logic promoting reconciliation between the Syrian regime and its opposition that had been initially adopted by his movement over the course of several months[i]. A gradual change in Hamas’ position can be linked to the military radicalization of the Syrian conflict that had occurred: the clash between the regular army and the combatants of the Free Syrian Army in Homs have seemed, in effect, to augur a major turning point in the conflict and, thus, Hamas finds itself caught in a system of double-affiliation. On the one hand, it must handle Iran and Hezbollah, with whom it has secured a not only political, but also a logistical and military partnership. On the other hand, it must take into account global and regional dynamics, marked by the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Moroccan electoral scene, as well as the geopolitical weight of Qatar and Turkey.
The position of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) of Ramadan Shalah is clearly distinguishable from that of Hamas. Khaled Batash, a member of the PIJ leadership, recognizes the full legitimacy of the “social and democratic” demands of a large part of the Syrian population. Nonetheless, the PIJ is on guard against two dangers: the possibility of a “foreign intervention” (a fortiori an occidental one) and the risk of forgetting Syria’s Palestinians, who constitute a social and political actor that is at once internal and external to the national fabric of Syria[ii]. For the PIJ, the Palestinian political parties must endeavor to protect a category of the population that Khaled Batash still defines as “Syria’s guests.” From his point of view, to take part in the Syrian insurrection could eventually trigger a losing logic. (Hamas has concluded otherwise in terms of probable outcome.)
The difference in the position of the PIJ with regard to Hamas can be understood first on an ideological level. Its attachment to the Muslim Brotherhood since the beginning of the 1980s has been more than a relative one. Most of its founders, exiled at the time in Egypt, took part in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and were therefore excluded from the Egyptian brotherhood[iii]. Their distrust of the Salafist or Brotherhood-like character of part of the Syrian insurrection, their foreign policy and systematic critique of the Gulf States (particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia), has placed the PIJ in an awkward position vis-à-vis the Syrian revolution. Its supporters’ motivations without a doubt stem from the fear of an enemy Muslim Brothers’ surge in power and of eventually seeing the regional balance turn away from Iran and an “axis of resistance” and towards Israel. (This they have explicitly claimed.)
Thus, the PIJ’s nationalistic and third-world paradigm remains influential above all else in their approach to regional politics. In giving priority to opposing Israel and “imperialism,” any military solution in internal Arab affairs is explicitly rejected in accordance with the principle that what divides the Arab world plays in Israel’s favor. During a speech retransmitted in Gaza the 6 October 2012 (the movement’s anniversary), its secretary general, Ramadan Shalah, thus called to privilege a “political solution” in Syria and to renounce the use of arms.
Beyond the ideological position of the party, the PIJ also employs a tactical and pragmatic argument opposite Hamas. For essentially geopolitical reasons, Qatar, Turkey or Egypt could not replace – under simple plans for a balance of forces against Israel – the links that have been forged between the different Islamic Palestinian movements and Syria and Iran for almost two decades. The positioning of Hamas in the Syrian conflict, explicitly in favor of rebellion, effectively puts it at odds with some of its economic and military funders. It thereby attempts to maintain its links with Iran, to which the series of official delegations of Hamas to Iran attested - from Mahmoud Zahar to Ismael Haniyeh (the latter having officially thanked the Islamic Republic for its political and military support during the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in November 2012[iv]).
The Left and Fatah: An Impossible Neutrality?
To the left of the Palestinian political spectrum, ambiguity concerning the Syran crisis endured until the fall of 2013. The media of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the media of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) have done little in the way of expressing themselves on the subject; since the spring of 2011, they have rarely issued communiqués concerning Syria, as the nature of leaders’ public opinion is more measured. The constants in the left, or at least in some of its components, resemble those of the PIJ: the refusal of various “foreign interventions,” strategic non-alignment and a call, at times, for a national Syrian dialogue. A double fear is reflected in the pronouncements of its leaders.
On one hand, the Palestinians, a refugee population and thus a “weak actor,” could not take up arms next to the Syrians. On the other hand, a concern is emerging with respect to political Islam: the Islamic lexicon used by a part of the armed insurrection dissuades Syria’s Palestinians from taking part in a war whose contours are becoming increasingly denominational. In January 2013 Abou Ahmed Fouad, a member of the leadership of the PFLP, recalled that the function of the party (in Syria) must be limited to preventing the intrusion of armed forces into the camps – both the regime as well as the opposition.
The left’s fear of Islamism could also privilege a reading of the conflict in a manner increasingly similar to the Syrian regime. During a speech she delivered in Tunisia on the fortieth-day anniversary of the assassination of Chokri Belaid (an activist from Tunisia’s left) in March 2013, Leila Khaled, a historic PFLP figure and member of its direction in Amman[v], chose to ostensibly display the Tunisian flag in one hand and the Syrian flag – a symbol of the regime – in the other. The readings of the Syrian crisis in the Palestinian left vary thus from a mechanism of defense (the necessity to barricade against the rise of a Sunni radical Islamism in the region) to a double distrust of the regime and the opposition. This refusal of Islamism is thus paradoxical: it is the political Islam of the Muslim Brothers or the Salafists that the left generally denounces, while Hezbollah and the PIJ seem to be more like allies in a particular form of alliance of minorities against an Islamist peril that they view as exclusively Sunni or tied to the Gulf states.
Given that Hamas has gradually burned its bridges with the Syrian regime, Fatah finds also finds itself constrained by some surprising reversions. Along the lines of the PIJ or the PFLP, a vision of the Syrian opposition with a distinctly Islamic nature frightens Fatah, as this situation greatly benefits Hamas in the Palestinian political scene. Certain cadres of the Fatah youth say that they thus prefer that the Palestinian Authority look towards Russia, Hezbollah and Iran to build a new balance of power against the Islamist forces in the region. The neutrality that Fatah displays in the conflict seems to also be an emotional stumbling block over the fear of Hamas. And this fear is also a strategic concern; the weakening of the Syrian regime could benefit Fatah’s adversaries, as the heirs of Yasser Arafat may construe the downfall of the regime negatively. Fatah’s media in Syria have realized that this is a seriously strange conflict of interest in which the protagonists remain appropriately shadowy. Every day the name of civilian Palestinians fallen victim to the conflict is posted to the movement’s Facebook page without any mention of the exact sources of gunfire or bombardment[vi].
These Palestinian divisions over the subject of Syria remain – at the moment - political and strategic: they have not reached the scale, for example, of the inter-Palestinian clashes of 1983 and 1984 between the Syrian regime’s supporters and the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO.) In the spring of 2013, worrying signs of a military spillover appeared in some Lebanese refugee camps[vii]. The question thus posed by the Syrian insurrection to the national Palestinian movement was at that time simply over taking sides in favor of the opposition or the regime; it was also about being able to contain its divisions and manage its strategic relationships in a manner that was political, not military, and contrary to the route taken during the beginning of the 1980s or the short inter-Palestinian war of the summer of 2007.
[Excerpt from an article by Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Le mouvement national palestinien face à la crise syrienne : une division contenue » (“The National Palestinian Movement Torn Over the Syrian crisis “) in a collected works edited by François Burgat et Bruno Paoli, Pas de printemps pour la Syrie ?Acteurs et défis de la crise 2011-2013, (No Spring for Syria ? Actors and Challenges in the Crisis : 2011- 2013) forthcoming from Découverte. This article was originally published in French in ORIENT XXI and translated to English by Allison L. McManus.]
[i] It should be noted that on 3 March 2012 a declaration from Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, calling for Hamas’ neutrality in the Syrian conflict, came to somewhat contradict Ismael Haniyeh’s proposal.
[ii] Khaled Batash et Muin Rabban, 2013: “Kyarna houwa al-Mouqawama wa al-Hall as-Soulta al-filastiniya yahtajou ila Niqash watani” (Our choice is resistance and the solution of the Palestinian authority situated in a national dialogue.) Majala ad-Dirasat al-filastiniya Journal of Palestinian Studies. 93.
[iii] Nicolas Dot-Pouillard et Eugénie Rebillard, 2013: “The Intellectual, the Militant, the Prisoner and the Partisan: the genesis of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (1974-1988)” The Muslim World, Hartford Seminary, Blackwell Publishing.
[iv]Ismael Haniyeh, in a sort of regional politics of equilibrium, also thanked Morsi’s Egypt on this occasion.
[v] Chokri Belaid, a leader of the Unified Democratic Patriots’ Party, was assassinated in Tunis on 6 February 2013. Leila Khaled, a historic figure from Palestine’s left, is notably famous for having orchestrated several plane hijackings in the 1960s.
[vi] See the Syrian section of Fatah’s Facebook page (Harakat Fatah Iqlim Souriya).
[vii] There were clashes in March 2013 in the Ayn al-Heloue refugee camp, between supporters of Fatah and Fatah al-Islam, the latter being close to Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra.