Views on a new Near East
Wednesday April 16th 2014

Hamas in the Region

This page as PDF PDF  

Paul Mutter





By Paul Mutter


Paul Mutter is a contributor to PBS Tehran Bureau, The Arabist, Foreign Policy in Focus and Mondoweiss. A graduate of Rutgers University, he blogs about – in no particular order of preference – the Saudi-American relationship, general defence/security issues in the Middle East, Israeli domestic politics and Islamist movements. Mr. Mutter is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations at NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science.


The ceasefire1 brokered by the Egyptians between Israel and Hamas last November, plus other groups like Islamic Jihad who have signed onto it, that brought Operation Pillar of Cloud to an end, contains some significant concessions, at least on paper, to Gaza’s militant Islamist rulers:

A. Israel should stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals.

B. All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.

C. Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.

Much work is to be done: the re-opening of the crossings into Israel is a significant opportunity for Hamas, which will push for it hard, while Israel will surely resist it as best as it can – with Egypt having to decide how to push for this point to actually be implemented in the coming weeks as Israel enters an election season.

Those seeking to uphold the terms will have to bring a great deal of political capital to the negotiating tables in the coming weeks. The leaders of Israel’s Kadima and Labor parties criticised the terms of the ceasefire for being too lenient on Hamas. With respect to Israel’s obligations in the ceasefire, so too did the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood2 rail against the negotiations in his capacity as the head of the Islamist organisation whose elected members now govern Egypt.

The terms represent a triumph for Egyptian diplomats, to be sure: this time, most of the talking was done through Cairo – Washington played an important role pressuring all parties, but did so on the side-lines, and Ramallah was practically absent at every level of the discussions. Iran could not even secure permission from the Egyptians to enter Gaza to show support for Hamas.

For the diplomatic mid-term, this will likely hold true: Egypt’s President Morsi has inflicted a constitutional crisis on the country in what many Egyptians are decrying as a Mubarak-style power grab.3 But Morsi’s diplomacy has won him international plaudits that the latest democratic contest inside Egypt has not well-and-truly dispelled.4 The continuity of policy with Mubarak on presidential powers is a whole other issue5, but it’s worth noting that there is also significant continuity on Gaza. Despite the Brotherhood’s public refusal to treat with Israeli officials, though, those Brothers in the government are bound by longstanding, US-brokered obligations to do just that.

Shadi Hamid and Borzou Daragahi6 argued at the time that “Egypt foreign policy isn’t firmly in Morsi’s hands now anyway. MoFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] & GID [General Intelligence Directorate] in Egypt are still dominated by Mubarak types.” Such people do dominate these apparatuses, and have built relationships with their Israeli counterparts, especially in the GID,7 and this ensures continuity of policy. Nowhere was this more evident than in Israeli mediator Gershon Baskin’s report8 that Hamas’s late military commander Ahmed Jaadari – whose assassination by the IDF officially commenced Operation Pillar of Cloud9 – had strong GID ties, which helped make possible the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange and past ceasefire discussions.

Brotherhood rhetoric aside, Egypt, as an empowered broker, has no interests in starting a fight with Israel over Gaza, even if street protestors or parliamentarians or clerics call for “jihad” and “Muslim unity.” With its own Islamist woes in the Sinai exacerbated by smuggling in Gaza, Cairo does not look to endanger the Cold Peace in the region to show solidarity with Hamas. However, the newly assertive Brotherhood government will be seeking ways to break with Mubarak’s traditions. Such moves will give Israeli diplomats a lot more headaches to deal with, and further set the tone for other Arab states in their dealings with both Tel Aviv and Gaza City.

Though aware of the change in regional alignments, Israel does not appear to be moving to re-evaluate its policies quickly. Right-wing politicians fixated on settlement expansion in the West Bank, not on formal talks with Hamas, dominate Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party list, expected to be the biggest winner in January 2013.

And while the timing of Pillar of Cloud has been called into question because of these 2013 elections, since 2010 the IDF has expressed the “need” to go in and hit Hamas again to maintain “deterrence,” so what happened these past weeks was not a surprise.10 The question was, from 2010 on, when Israel would decide it needed to resume “mowing the lawn”11 – the euphemism used to describe the policy of bringing the perpetual siege of Gaza to hot and cold extremities depending on Israeli assessments.

Simply put: “[c]easefire declared, but conditions that led to escalation remain.”12

Some Israeli leaders do recognize this much, at least. As Maariv’s Ben Caspit noted, “Mubarak and [Omar] Suleiman [former head of the GID] are no longer around,” but “this supposedly alarming scenario has come true, and life goes on as usual.”13 Israeli officials no longer describe the Brotherhood’s Egypt as “a hostile state,” but as a mediator.14 And despite fulsome denunciations it will not talk to Hamas, Israel does talk to Hamas, through well-demarcated back channels in Cairo: it did so several times this month, and the year before, when it negotiated the prisoner exchange that Jaabari presided over on the Islamists’ side.

But at the same time, Israeli unease remains palpable. The apparent contradiction15 of negotiating with and granting concessions to Hamas after it has attacked Israeli targets while decrying every move Fatah makes in the international arena as “diplomatic terror”16 makes clear Israel’s lack of long-term strategic planning. And there were again calls to “finish the job” in Gaza this time around17 – though fewer than there were three years ago when Operated Cast Lead ended – and the IDF will continue to carry out “mowing the lawn” unless a change comes from on high by the policymakers.

It is fortunate the ceasefire went into effect when it did: an unknown militant group planted a bomb on a bus in Tel Aviv hours before the agreement was announced. Though Hamas itself may not have ordered the attack, the fact that a group successfully carried out such a bombing in Tel Aviv, and did so for the first time since 2006, raises the stakes within Hamas – and the other Islamist group implicated in the bombing, Islamic Jihad – for those at the top who oppose continued struggle on how to respond next time Israel launches strikes in Gaza. They will, in the future, now forced to respond to such pressure, to chose whether to fully endorse18 or dissociate19 themselves, and the leadership will be held accountable if any such group bucks against the new ceasefire.

The changing diplomatic situation in the coming year(s) means any further Israeli operations will be occurring in a new regional context, though.

The audience for Israeli hasbara20 does not reside in Cairo, Doha, Gaza City, or Ankara. It never has, yet those are the places where Israeli diplomats really ought to exerting themselves in these days, towards understanding the growing constellation of (Sunni) Islamist solidary and how to respond to that.

Though that constellation is hardly an incipient “caliphate” and not targeted specifically at Israel – in Jordan, for instance, the protest situation involving the local Muslim Brotherhood has little if anything to do with Israel and nearly everything to do with resentment of the government’s fiscal policies21 – there is a growing intersection of certain foreign policy interests among these states. They can agree on such vital matters as the easing out Alawite rule in Syria, the further isolation of Tehran from its agents in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories and over pressuring Israel to recognise a Palestinian state.

It means that the Arab revolutions’ predicted “sea change” for Israel is finally starting to take concrete shape in these capitals.

There are clear limits to the new regional order, though: during Pillar of Cloud, Egypt’s government made some strong symbolic gestures Mubarak never would have made – sending its Prime Minister to Gaza during the fighting and recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv – but Cairo closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt as the old regime22 did, though it has since reopened. And as of this moment President Morsi has still done more to curb Gaza’s smuggling tunnels that Hamas relies on than President Mubarak ever did.23

This policy has to do with the destabilising effects the smuggling operations have on the already poor security situation in the Sinai,24 which has at times spilled over into Israel. It should serve as a reminder that while simpatico Islamist parties may be more inclined to work together on supranational issues like the Palestinian Question, they are not about to do so in a way that abrogates their very specific, and very immediate, interests. As Marc Lynch writes at Foreign Policy:

“Regional leaders are trying to position themselves in support of Gazans, but very cautiously. …. The coming days will, among many other things, offer some of the first real evidence about the strategic effects of the Arab uprisings. It is important to recognise how limited the response of the Arab public and leaders has been thus far. But it’s also important to recognise how quickly this could change, and how unsurprising this would be should it happen.”25

Egypt, though in theory Hamas’s most sympathetic partner as a result of the revolution, has its own interests to safeguard in the Sinai, ones that do not line up with Hamas’s at this time, but with Israel’s instead. This is also true for Qatar, which is far more focused on Syria than the Occupied Territories and has few tools besides its vast wealth and well-sited conference halls to influence decisions. And this goes for Turkey as well: though stung by Israel’s behaviour during the first Gaza Flotilla and highly critical of Pillar of Cloud, it is mainly focused on pressing security concerns with Syria and Kurdish separatism.

These other interests come first – which will be no surprise to Palestinians – despite vocal public opposition in these states’ against Israel’s actions. One key difference here that actually limits these governments’ options is that while such vocal public opposition was of present and organised in part by Islamists before 2011, they were not in power then, they had different responsibilities and could rail against the government without fear of losing the US aid package for it.

In essence, the “sea change” does not mean that Islamist governments in the region will redouble their efforts for Palestinians even in the next few years. It simply means that they will be less likely to knuckle under in response to an Israeli move in Gaza or the West Bank for fear of upsetting the US, even while they generally maintain existing policies. That all it takes in Israel to create so much pessimism for future relations is this shift in tone would be astounding, if the tone was not so essential for justifying the upkeep of past accords. Just to talk of a supranational coordination effort based on shared ideology is taken in Israel as proof of a widening, Jew-hating Islamic gyre in the region.

In terms of diplomacy, and without dismissing the anti-Semitic discourses in many of these countries’ religious establishments, this growing unity of Islamist interests may come together in ways little different than the ways in which Israeli and American right-wingers have become transnationally “Likudlican”26 since 2001, with conservative (but especially, neoconservative) foreign policy elites in the two states increasingly aligned on matters both cultural and martial with respect to the greater Middle East and the Western presence in it.

Considering how well this alignment has worked for Israeli interests over the past thirty years, Tel Aviv is right to be worried of a similar dynamic occurring along Islamist lines because it will stymie its unilateral freedom of action in Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas has been bloodied, to the gratification of many Israeli politicians, and the group’s reduced isolation does not necessarily mean they will be that much better off when a ceasefire goes into effect. Too many Palestinians in Gaza live on the economic margins, and Hamas faces the same problems Fatah encountered up until its 2007 eviction from the enclave. And can the Israeli blockade actually be lifted? Just as when Fatah’s rule increasingly grated on Gaza’s Islamists after 1987, the Israeli-blockaded economy, Hamas’s own corruption, economic context and moderates’ difficulties in selling overtures to “the Zionist entity” wear down its popularity, though there is hardly anything or anyone in the Strip who could replace the movement. Draconian crackdowns on alleged enemies27 of the movement alienate supporters and provide fodder for political rivals, but each time Israel fights in Gaza, it buys Hamas more domestic and international support.28 As both Hugh Naylor29 and Amira Hass30 have reported, Hamas is again out-scoring Fatah on the street these days.

Operation Pillar of Cloud, having ended without a ground invasion, has still helped make Hamas more palatable31 to officials in Turkey, the Persian Gulf states, and most importantly, Egypt. Though Gaza will still eke out a marginal existence compared to its neighbours, and Hamas will be pressed to give ever more draconian displays of control, it will emerge with more diplomatic options than ever before in the region, plus a chance of getting much-needed shots of aid from Qatar or Turkey to maintain its popular social welfare programs.

And the appeal of having such weight to throw around in diplomatic forums is quiet appealing. Gaza offers Turkey and Qatar a “place in the sun,” just as Saudi Arabia initiated the Arab Peace Initiative to seek leadership for the House of Saud, and Tehran sees its role in the Levant arming proxies against “the Zionist entity” and to also claim a greater leadership role in the Muslim world. Global Post’s Erin Cunningham32 succinctly posits that the difference this time between Israel and Hamas is that “Hamas is wealthier and has more friends” these days.

Israel hoped to send a message to Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the US with Pillar of Cloud, but the message was not received as intended in any of these places except the US, which offered fulsome support for the operation.

Such fulsome and unconditional support is blinding Israel to the changing realities in the region. Many journalists in Israel have captured the “rally ‘round the flag” mood there – their cities are being shelled, included heretofore “immune” Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and Ethan Bronner33 sums up Israel’s strategic outlook as follows: “the changes do not demand a new strategy, simply a redoubled old one.” The suggested Israeli and hardline Palestinians’ solutions, regrettably, will surely be more of the same dynamic: ceasefires bookended by tit for tat fire fights, provocative IAF targeted killings and IDF retaliation in response to Hamas’s shelling of towns in southern Israel.

This unsustainable set of policies that will be argued for so long as Israeli and Palestinian leaders move at a glacial place to change the policies that direct such operations: “as battlefield changes, Israel takes tougher approach,” the New York Times’s headline for Bronner’s article reads.




1. Reuters, “Full text: Ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza,” Ma’an News Agency, November 21, 2012,

2. Associated Press, “Day after president brokered Gaza truce, Egypt’s Brotherhood leader slams peace with Israel,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2012,

3. Karim, Ennarah, (transl. Industry Arabic), “Dismantling the Brothers’ revolutionary self-image,” The Arabist, December 1, 2012,

4. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, “After Brokering Gaza Ceasefire, Egypt’s Morsi Re-Ignites Protests With Decree Expanding Powers,” Democracy Now!, November 26, 2012,

5. “Dictatorship, democracy, dictatorship?,” The Economist, December 1, 2012,

6. Shadi Hamid (via Borzou Darghi) “Egypt foreign policy isn’t firmly in Morsi’s hands now anyway. MoFA & GID in #Egypt still dominated by Mubarak types,” Twitter, November 16, 2012,

7. Issandr El Amrani, “Another Take on Jabari’s Assassination,” The Arabist, November 16, 2012,

8. Nir Hasson, “Israeli peace activist: Hamas leader Jabari killed amid talks on long-term truce,” Haaretz, November 15, 2012,

9. Lisa Goldman, “Israel Announces Military Operation Against Gaza — on Twitter,” Tech President, November 14, 2012,

10. Prof. Efraim Inbar and Dr. Max Singer, “The Opportunity in Gaza,” BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 167, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, March 15, 2012,

11. Yoni Dayan, “Mowing the lawn,” Yedioth Ahronoth, November 27, 2012,,7340,L-4312017,00.html

12. Noam Sheizaf, “Ceasefire declared, but conditions that led to escalation remain,” +972, November 21, 2012,

13. Ben Caspit (transl. Hanni Manor), “Gaza Crisis Reveals Israel is Talking,” Al-Monitor, November 21, 2012,

14. Paul Mutter, “Israel’s Anti-Egypt Posturing a Boon to Eilat Attackers ,” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 19, 2011,

15. Gido Ran, “עזה מסמנת V ענק. המשמעויות של הישגי חמאס,” Yedioth Ahronoth, November 22, 2012,,7340,L-4310322,00.html

16. Herb Keinon and Khaled Abu Toameh, “FM: Abbas engaging in political terrorism,” The Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2012,

17. Gilad Sharon, “A decisive conclusion is necessary,” The Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2012,

18. Reuters, “Hamas ‘blesses’ terror attack on Tel Aviv bus,” The Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2012,

19. “Israeli air strike kills chiefs of Gaza’s PRC group,” Reuters, August 18, 2011,

20. Anshel Pfeffer, “The PR policy – ‘civilizing’ the operation,” Haaretz, November 16, 2012,

21. Setareh Sieg, “Jordan Protests Take Aim at King,” VOA, November 16, 2012,

22. “Egypt eases blockade at Gaza’s Rafah border,” BBC, May 28, 2011,

23. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Gazans protest demolition of smuggling tunnels,” The Jerusalem Post, October 2, 2012,

24. Heba Fahmy, “Appointment of new security director in Sinai curbs protests,” Egypt Independent, April 11, 2012,

25. Marc Lynch, “Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?” Foreign Policy, November 16, 2012,

26. Gershom Gorenberg, “Mitt the Likudlican,” The American Prospect, July 31, 2012,

27. Jodi Rudoren, “Collaboration in Gaza Leads to Grisly Fate,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012,

28. Gaza Youth Breaks Out, “Gaza youth breaks out with a ‘manifesto for change’,” Mondoweiss, January 2, 2011,

29. Hugh Naylor, “Hamas pragmatists lose out in leadership struggle,” The National, November 17, 2012,

30. Amira Hass, “At Ramallah protest, Hamas’ green overcomes Fatah’s yellow,” Haaretz, November 16, 2012,

31. Catrina Stewart, “Hamas hails diplomatic victory,” The Independent, October 23, 2012,

32. Erin Cunningham, “In skirmish, Israel confronts a newly confident Hamas,” Global Post, November 15, 2012,

33. Ethan Bronner, “As Battlefield Changes, Israel Takes Tougher Approach,” The New York Times, November 16, 2012,


Related Tags: