Thirty-Five Years after Founding: Hamas’s Strategic Priorities in a Changing Environment
Policy Analysis | This analysis presents a diagnosis of four Hamas leaders’ speeches, delivered at the Hamas’s 35th anniversary celebrations. The analysis seeks to answer the main question: What messages did leaders’ speeches carry? What positions are they embracing concerning the main challenges and directions of Hamas future track?
by Hazem Salem Dmour
- Release Date – Jan 3, 2023
On December 14, 2022, Hamas celebrated its 35th anniversary with a central festival in the Gaza Strip, another festival at Birzeit University in the West Bank on the same day, and a third festival in the Lebanese city of Sidon on the 25th of the same month.
During the central festival in the Gaza Strip, a speech was delivered by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, followed by a speech by the Palestinian leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, while Hamas’s festival at Birzeit University witnessed a speech by Saleh Al-Arouri, deputy head of the political bureau. At the Sidon festival, the speech was given by Hamas official abroad, Khaled Mashaal.
Given that these celebrations coincide with several changes taking place in the local arena in Palestine, whether the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. With a new phase in Hamas’ political project based mainly on regional normalization and appeasement in the Gaza Strip while maneuvering in the West Bank, two main question arise: What messages did the Hamas leaders convey in their speeches marking the founding of Hamas 35 years ago? And what positions are they taking concerning the main challenges and directions of Hamas’ future?
Strategic Priorities in the Contents of the Four Speeches
Haniyeh’s speech is considered the most important of the four by virtue of his position as the head of Hamas’ political bureau. Indeed, his speech served as the official Hamas speech on the anniversary of its founding. It served as a detailed political statement in which he referred to three important variables:
- The escalation of the state of “resistance in the West Bank.”
- The results of the Israeli elections which ushered in a religious Zionist movement as a political partner in the formation of the new Israeli government that is, perhaps, the most right-wing in terms of its positions and approaches towards the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
- The Ukrainian crisis and its consequences that have a direct impact on the region and on the Palestinian cause, according to Haniyeh, as well as on the world teetering on the verge of being a multipolar international system.
In light of the these three variables, Haniyeh outlined seven strategic priorities and principles that Hamas will work on during the next period.
- The Palestinian cause is an integral whole at the level of land, people, constants, and rights.
- Jerusalem is at the center of the conflict with Israel.
- Palestinian resistance is destiny, not a choice or a slogan, and it will “continue and escalate.”
- Achieving national unity, agreeing on a national political program for this stage, and building a unified leadership reference.
- Continuing to be open to all components of the Arab and Islamic nation and countries, and all “free people” in a joint coordination to confront Israel.
- Hamas will not hesitate to plan and work for the release of prisoners, and the Qassam Brigades are determined to complete the prisoner exchange deal with Israel.
- Working to break the siege on the Gaza Strip.
As for the speeches by Sinwar and Al-Arouri, they did not include anything new. Instead, they emphasized most of the seven points mentioned by Haniyeh, especially the priority of prisoners,” and were, in general, closer to tactical speeches than a cohesive political statement.
Sinwar’s speech gave the Israeli government “a limited time” to complete a prisoner exchange deal, threatening that Hamas will close the file permanently and find another way to free them. Al-Arouri’s speech was also noteworthy on the topic: “We captured the soldiers and liberated prisoners. Our duty is to continue this process: capture soldiers and settlers, and complete the exchange process until we free our prisoners.”
Mashaal’s speech, on the other hand, delivered political implications, calling for “national unity in the face of the new Israeli government based on the spirit of partnership in responsibility and decision, and in the field and the level of leadership on [a] democratic basis.” Mashaal also focused on the role of the Palestinian “diaspora”, calling for agreement on “a clear political vision based on the resistance program.”
After Thirty-Five Years: A Changing Environment and Emerging Challenges
The speeches of the four Hamas leaders did not reveal anything new in a strategic sense. In essence, they were an extension of the “Document of Principles and General Policies” announced by Hamas in May 2017, which constituted a turning point in Hamas’ political discourse and a shift from the “Hamas Charter” announced in August 1988. None of the anniversary speeches indicated the diversity of the challenges facing Hamas or the multiplicity of its announced priorities. This is perhaps due to the multiplicity of decision-making positions and Hamas’ attempt to maintain an internal balance between those positions and their centers of power.
The main challenge facing Hamas today is that its decision-making centers are distributed among four large regions or organizational areas: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israeli prisons, and abroad. The state of competition between these centers of power is clear, and it emerged after the 1995 arrest of Musa Abu Marzouk, the head of Hamas’ first political bureau, in the United States and the subsequent rise of Mashaal to preside over the political bureau in 1996 while Marzouq remained in prison.
This provoked a major internal crisis in Hamas after Marzouq’s release in 1997, which went so far as to accuse Meshaal and the “Kuwait group” (including Sami Khater and Izzat al-Rishq) of turning against the “Gaza group”, represented by Marzouq, which considered itself deserving to lead Hamas.
Since that moment, the strategy of “consensual balances” appeared in the formation of Hamas’s leadership in a manner that satisfies the organization’s four decision-making centers. This is reflected in the establishment of the current political bureau headed by Haniyeh from the Gaza Strip and his deputy Al-Arouri from the West Bank. (Al-Arouri is a former prisoner who was deported. Meshaal is in charge of Hamas activities outside the region. Sinwar, who is also a former prisoner, is in charge of the Gaza region. The official in charge of the West Bank region remains in secrecy for security reasons; his official duties are carried out by Al-Arouri, the current deputy head of the political bureau. Prisoner Salameh Qatawi heads the supreme leadership body of prisons.
The various responsibilities in the political bureau are distributed on the same representative base of the four locations. In light of this, the disparity of Hamas’ strategic priorities can be interpreted in its four speeches, which express the multiplicity of challenges that its decision-making centers are going through, and reflect Hamas geographical priorities, in addition to what can be called the inclusive consensus formula, represented by Haniyeh’s speech. When analyzing each speech separately, the following appears, where:
First: In the speeches of Sinwar and Al-Arouri, (who both assumed responsibility for the prison territory during their long period of detention) the high pace of interest in the prisoners’ issue emerges, especially in light of the frustration concerning the possibility of liberating the prisoners, whether among the prisoners themselves or within the Palestinians, and the continued pending-up of the prisoners’ file, which puts the Hamas’s leadership in a dilemma, pushing it to choose between two options to achieve a significant breakthrough, especially in light of the policies of the new right-wing government in Israel.
The first option is to implement Sinwar’s and al-Aruri’s threats to abduct Israeli soldiers and settlers in order to speed up the prisoner exchange process and improve the terms for negotiations.
The second option is to make concessions to Israel, regarding the terms of the exchange process, in order to advance the negotiations and to ensure the release of hundreds of prisoners, in exchange for other privileges that Hamas may obtain in the file of managing the Gaza Strip, especially in the issues of economic and commercial facilities, crossings, and work permits for Gaza’s citizens in Israel.
In light of the difficulties facing Hamas’ position on the ground, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza, as well as Hamas inability to bear the politically and militarily consequences of the first option, the impact of Arab and regional equations on Hamas strategic decisions, besides the readiness of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to take escalatory measures if Hamas may fulfill the threats of Sinwar and Al-Arouri. The second option is the more likely to take place, it is also the most supportive of Hamas’s long-term political strategy, especially in the case of effective intervention, by influential mediators, in the course of prisoner exchange negotiations between Hamas and Israel.
However, the inability to achieve a breakthrough in the prisoners’ file via the previous two options may lead to a third option that is not taken into account: small armed groups may kidnap Israeli soldiers or settlers, either by these groups’ own decision or under the guidance and support of al-Jihad al-Islami and its allies, or by some Hamas leaders in prisons and in the West Bank. This would have major repercussions, chief among them is that the Israeli response would include a major military escalation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Second, The Gaza Strip is experiencing a harsh economic situation that has reached the point where dozens of Gaza Strip citizens are trying to migrate by sea despite the high risks that has caused many of them to drown. Despite the seriousness of this situation, it did not occupy the space it deserves in Hamas’ anniversary speeches. For instance, Sinwar, a Hamas official in Gaza, did not address this topic, while Haniyeh, the most senior Hamas official from Gaza, addressed it as the seventh and last priority when he referred to "work" to break the siege on the Gaza Strip.
Even that priority in Haniyeh’s speech, mentioned little about how to break that siege. Haniyeh only said, “Campaigns will be launched again to force Israel to end the siege on Gaza.” This indicates that Hamas can’t do anything more with regard to managing the Gaza Strip in terms of living conditions. Is also means that Hamas cannot provide more to the people of the Strip—especially since Hamas’ leaders do not feel that there are any threats to their control in the Strip— in spite of the difficult living and domestic conditions.
The continuation and intensification of the crisis may affect the nature of the relationship between Hamas decision-making centers. It may also affect Hamas’s relationship with other factions, especially al-Jihad al-Islami, which witnessed tensions after Hamas distanced itself from interfering in the Israeli escalation against the al-Jihad am-Islami inside the Gaza Strip in August 2022.
Third, Al-Arouri intensified his speech against the Palestinian Authority, politically and in terms of security, because of Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for the field tensions in the West Bank. It is clear from his speech that the challenge of the West Bank is linked to Hamas’ future role there, a role governed by internal determinants headed by the Palestinian Authority, its security services, and the Fatah Movement, as well as foreign determinants represented by the increasing settlement in the West Bank. In short, Hamas is betting on security tensions in the West Bank to establish a central role there.
While Hamas is not fully involved in these security tensions, in its discourse and speeches, Hamas is escalating the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority and the security services in charge, which, in essence, absolves Hamas in the Gaza Strip of that responsibility and puts the Palestinian Authority in a crisis of confidence in public opinion.
Fourth, Meshaal’s speech highlighted Hamas’s political ambition to lead and represent the Palestinian people, specifically abroad, especially in light of the internal crisis of the Palestinian Authority. This was shown by his emphasis on the clear political vision and the achievement of national unity on the basis of partnership and democracy, which Haniyeh had previously referred to in his emphasis on the need to agree on a national political program for this stage and build a unified leadership reference.
However, the two speeches did not present any procedural initiatives to achieve national unity, which means the continuation of the situation as it is regarding the files of political division and internal reconciliation.
Finally, 35 years after its founding, Hamas seems more cautious and pragmaticbut also more politically ambitious as well as it seeks to employ changes in Israel and the West Bank in favor of strengthening its roles at various local and regional levels based on presenting itself as a political entity with many tools and capabilities.
However, Hamas faces serious challenges related to the delicate balance between its four organizational centers. It also faces the difficulty of prioritizing between strengthening its management of the Strip or coming up with solutions to the prisoners’ issue. The repercussions of the security escalation in the West Bank and the loss of stability in the West Bank are difficult to predict. In addition, Hamas is facing a legitimacy crisis after the deterioration of social and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip and the failure of political Islam experiments in the region. Thus, Hamas is seeking to maintain its complex network of relations. Such relations, in turn, are witnessing fundamental changes in their policies towards Hamas, as is the case with Turkey.
Hazem Salem Dmour
General Manager / Specialized Researcher in International Relations and Strategic Studies