Things have not been good between Hamas and its patron, Iran.
In response to the failure of Hamas to organise rallies in support of their proxy, Assad, Iran cut funding to the terrorist group in August. By December, Hamas had withdrawn all by a few of its staff in Damascus. Further threats to cut funding were made in December.
By February, the Hamas leadership was in canny Qatar and in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood – its own party – are the key political force. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is not dominant in Syria, its members are now anti-Assad, as is the Egyptian and Tunisian party. Hence, when Ismail Haniyeh travelled to Egypt, he expressed support for the Syrian opposition – although the Salafists were notably unimpressed.
The latest episode in this unhappy saga comes in the form of an article by the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood.
Hamas will not do Iran’s bidding in any war with Israel, according to senior figures within the militant Islamic group.
“If there is a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war,” Salah Bardawil, a member of the organisation’s political bureau in Gaza City, told the Guardian.
He denied the group would launch rockets into Israel at Tehran’s request in response to a strike on its nuclear sites. “Hamas is not part of military alliances in the region,” said Bardawil. “Our strategy is to defend our rights”
The stance underscores Hamas’s rift with its key financial sponsor and its realignment with the Muslim Brotherhood and popular protest movements in the Arab world.
Bardawil’s words were echoed by a second senior Hamas figure, who declined to be named. Hamas, he said, “would not get involved” in any war between Iran and Israel.
Tehran has withdrawn its patronage of Hamas over the Palestinian group’s refusal to support the Syrian regime against a year-long uprising. According to a Gazan academic who specialises in Islamic movements, this has included the termination of financial support worth $23m (£14.5m) a month.
“Iran is very unhappy about Hamas and Syria, so it is punishing Hamas,” said Adnan Abu Amer of Ummah university. “They have stopped funding. Hamas has other sources – the Gulf states, Islamic movements, charities – but all of these together are not comparable to $23m a month.”
Bardawil denied this sum, saying “the money that comes from Iran is very limited. In the early days of the [Israeli] blockade [of Gaza], the money was very good, but it was reduced two years ago.” The cut in funding “is not because of the Syrian revolution,” he added.
Abu Amer, who had links to both Hamas and the Syrian government during three years in Damascus studying for a PhD, likens the rupture between the two sides to a divorce. “Syria has become the past for Hamas. It’s not a complete divorce, but the love will not return. Both sides understand this.”
Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, was the second most important person in the country after President Bashar al-Assad, said Abu Amer. “The hotline between them was unique.” Hamas leaders in Syria were treated like members of state, he said. “The regime even allowed Hamas people to hold weapons. It was like a military base for Hamas.”
As you can imagine, this article has resulted in a certain amount of excitement. It has also provoked an angry denial from senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar:
Speaking to the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars on Wednesday, top Hamas figure Mahmoud Zahar refuted a similar report apparently broadcast by BBC’s Persian website, saying: “Retaliation with utmost power is the position of Hamas with regard to a Zionist war on Iran.”
There’s clearly some debate going on. However, the direction in which Hamas-Iranian relationships are travelling is clear.
Relationships between patrons and clients in the Middle East are often based on temporary coincidences of interests which are capable, for a time, of transcending ideological divisions and even animosity. But a relationship between an Arab Sunni theocratic terrorist movement, and a Persian Shia theocracy, was essentially a marriage of convenience.
Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power in next-door Egypt, there’s no need for Hamas to pretend that it loves apostate Alawite or Shia regimes.