Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Hamas movement takes its name from the acronym of ‘Harakat al Muqawama al Islamia,’ meaning the Islamic resistance movement. It defines itself as a popular and nationalist resistance movement working towards the liberation of the Palestinian people from oppression, and the liberation of Palestinian soil from occupation. The movement considers itself to be a Jihadist movement in the broader definition of the term [Jihad meaning to strive towards something], as well as part of the larger Islamic revival. Hamas considers this to be the basic approach to liberating all Palestinian territory from the river to the sea, and the movement has not changed its ideology in almost 22 years since its inception in 1987.
However, Hamas today cannot be considered Palestinian only; it has strengthened and expanded its support-base, defeating the Fatah movement, the largest Palestinian faction for over 40 years, on three separate occasions; in municipal elections, in legislative elections, and finally by the use of force [when it carried out its coup on the Gaza Strip].
Hamas has shown great ability in the art of organization, deployment, expansion, and armament. The movement has close ties with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and other Arab countries. Hamas stopped boycotting elections and in 2006, it took control of the legislative council, and the movement now has its eyes on the presidency. Hamas has also changed its stance with regards to its relationship with Israel. It states that there will be no truce as long as Israel refuses to grant the Palestinians a state of their own.
The Hamas movement seized power in Gaza where it instituted its own “state”. It has pre-conditions that must be met before any Palestinian reconciliation can take place. This, in brief, is the Hamas movement. But how are decisions made within Hamas?
Strategic decisions are made by the politburo which is headed by Khaled Meshaal, after consultation with the Hamas Shura Council. As for decisions in the field, it is up to each Hamas field-commander to make their own decisions, as long as these do not contravene the general instructions issued by the politburo.
Rafat Nasif, a member of the Hamas politburo, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “strategic decisions are made based upon general consultation of four sectors within the movement; the external sector [outside of Palestine], the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Hamas members incarcerated in Israeli prisons.”
Each sector makes a decision independently, without consulting any other sectors. As for who makes the decision within each sector; a mini-consultative council is convened to decide the issue within each sector. For example, this mini-council in the West Bank will consult all areas in the West Bank [regarding the decision], and then it will make the decision and inform the Hamas politburo. Therefore, the decisions of the four sectors are brought together by the politburo in Damascus, which, based upon this information, will make a final decision. In cases where the politburo believes that the issue needs to be discussed further, this operation is repeated until a consensus is reached. However, occasionally decisions are made in a different way; in the case of important, strategic or historical issues, each individual Hamas member is given a vote.
This was the case when Hamas was deciding whether to participate in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006; each member of Hamas voted on this issue regardless of their location, even those who were in prison.
A source within the Hamas movement revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “the movement secretly distributed a ballot in which each member could express his opinion [on the issue of elections] and whether to participate or not, and the reasons for their choice.”
This was confirmed by Nasif. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the politburo handed over the issue to the Shura council, which asked each and every Hamas member for his opinion. I was in prison [at the time], but even in our prison cells we participated in the voting. Of course there were those in Hamas who opposed [participating in the 2006 elections], and those who had reservations, and those who had conditions. But the majority of members supported participating [in the 2006 elections] because of their confidence that the Hamas movement would win.”
Sources within Hamas revealed that the movements leadership wanted “Each individual to bear the historical responsibility of whether to participate in the elections [or not].”
Nasif confirmed that the politburo is the highest body in the Hamas movement, and that all decisions are made through it. It is the politburo in coordination with the Shura council that identifies the framework within which all Hamas members must work and abide by.
On the subject of the current state of calm [in Gaza], Nasif revealed that there are agreed upon parameters already in place, and that the politburo had authorized negotiators to negotiate in accordance with them. He added, “If new developments occur within the framework of these parameters then it is up to the politburo to decide, but if new developments occur that are not covered within this framework, then the politburo will consult the four sectors and a new decision will be made.”
This explains why Hamas usually needs more time to make decisions, especially since there is no possibility of holding direct meetings. Nasif did not reveal the size of each sector’s representation in the Shura Council, but sources have indicated that the West Bank has a smaller representation than that of Hamas abroad, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
There is no doubt that there are differences in opinion between the sectors, but Hamas is keen not to represent this as differences between the external and internal sectors, or differences between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even though a number of figures indicate that this is the case.
In spite of this, Nasif said, “Hamas does not force people to have the same views; the movement believes in the idea of consultation, and when a decision is made the first to defend it will be those who voted for it.”
However, sources in Hamas indicate that there is some dissatisfaction internally amongst Hamas members and officials regarding the actions of external members, especially Khaled Meshaal. Many of the internal Hamas members have repeatedly disagreed with him, most recently with regards to his calls for the establishment of a “new Palestinian authority.”
A Hamas leader said, “I sent him a message saying that this was a big mistake. It is unreasonable and unacceptable.”
Hamas officials recognize Meshaal as the leader of the movement, and according to Nasif, “He is the leader of the Hamas movement. He is the first man…even during the lifetime of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin [the spiritual leader of Hamas]. It is not the case that Sheikh Yassin was the leader of Hamas, and when he was succeeded by Abdel Aziz al Rantissi [who was assassinated in 2004] they said that al Rantissi was the leader of Hamas. However al Rantissi clarified this saying that he succeeds Sheikh Yassin as leader of Hamas in Gaza, and that he, and all Hamas members, owe their allegiance to Meshaal.”
However, the picture is not as clear as Nasif paints it to be during the lifetime of Sheikh Yassin. Sheikh Yassin was recognized as the leader of Hamas.
Muhib Nawati, a journalist who specializes in Islamic movements, who met Sheikh Yassin on numerous occasions, said, “There was a secret conflict taking place between Yassin and Meshaal for control of Hamas. Sheikh Yassin did not recognize Meshaal’s leadership of the movement to the point that just after his release from prison he asked ‘Who is Meshaal? What is the politburo?’”
According to Nawati, who published a book about the Hamas movement entitled ‘Inside Hamas’ in 2004, Meshaal attempted to control Hamas through his position as head of the politburo, and by way of his direct relationship with leaders of the Al Qassam brigade, and even through the funds granted to him by the global leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Al Nawati gave more than one example that illustrated the dispute that existed between Meshaal and Sheikh Yassin. He said that “differences [between them] were well-known, and there was polarization [within Hamas ranks]. For example, when Meshaal was once asked about Yassin’s role in Hamas, he answered that Yassin was a founder of Hamas and one of its commanders. This answer did not please Sheikh Yassin. I was with him and I told him that this is what Meshaal said. He was surprised and he asked, ‘Is that what he said? Ok, I know how to answer!’”
According to al Nawati, there are still disputes [within Hamas], and the prominent Hamas commander [and one of the movements founders] Mahmoud Zahhar occasionally opposes Meshaal.
As for how Khaled Meshaal took control of the politburo in 1996, that is another story altogether.
Hamas says that Mousa Abu Marzook was the first to reorganize the movement after most of its leadership was arrested by Israel in 1989, and that he founded the politburo so that the Hamas leadership could exist externally after it had been hit internally. Abu Marzook was the first leader of the politburo, and held this position between 1992 and 1995. Abu Marzook was arrested in 1995 in the US and held for two years; it was this event that gave Meshaal the opportunity to take control, according to Nawati. Meshaal instituted formal elections for the position in Amman in 1996, which he subsequently won. However, Palestinian sources reveal that some Hamas members will call for the return of Abu Marzook to his former post of head of the politburo in the forthcoming elections.
Nawati revealed that “following the mass arrest of the Hamas leadership in 1989, especially the arrest of Sheikh Yassin, the position of the Hamas leader was transferred outside of Palestine. The result of these changes that were instituted by necessity is the widening of a large gap and the creation of differences between internal and external Hamas. However, Sheikh Yassin’s release from prison in 1997 achieved a certain degree of balance between the two sides, although the external Hamas continues to dominate political, media, and military decisions.”
Nawati believes that “a number of events and occurrences have shown the differences between the internal and external Hamas leadership, the most prominent of which is engaging with the Palestinian Authority. The internal leadership is prepared to participate and cooperate, while the external leadership is completely at odds with this.”
Hamas officials, who hold the position of regional commanders, Shura council members, or members of the politburo, are not supposed to hold such positions for long periods of time since Hamas is keen to hold periodic elections. Even though nobody could give an idea of when such elections are to take place, it is well known amongst Hamas members that such elections are held every two to four years. It must also be noted that [in spite of this] the most prominent members of the Hamas politburo abroad are Khaled Meshaal, Mohamed Nazzal, and Mousa Abu Marzook; this has remained the case since 1996.
Nobody has named a precise number of Hamas Shura members either internally or externally, although according to sources within the movement, their number is between 70 and 90. In 2006, Hamas participated in Gaza elections for the first time since 1996, with tens of thousands voting Hamas members into positions in the administration, the Palestinian Shura Council, and the politburo.
According to an Hamas official, the Gaza elections produced dynamic young leaders in the political sphere, along with the election of key Hamas figures such as Ismail Haniyeh to the position of prime minister, not to mention Mahmoud Zahhar and Said al Siyam (who was assassinated during the recent Gaza War), as well as Khalil al Haya, and Issa al Nashar.
Despite the re-election of the Hamas Shura council, which is described as “the senior Hamas council,” Nawati believes that the council is no more than mere symbolic leadership, as its members do not engage in political action unless expressly told to do so by the politburo.
Most importantly however, for the first time, these elections in Gaza brought leaders from the military wing of Hamas (Al Qassam Brigades) to the politburo such as Ahmed al Jabari, Ahmed al Ghandur and Marwan Issa. Despite that the Al Qassam Brigades held independent elections, it was of course associated to the policies and positions of Hamas and received funding from the movement.
The military action carried out by Hamas was meek until the end of 1991. Major development in this regard began in 1992 until 1994. Military action then began to decrease in terms of numbers until 1997 due to the control of the [Palestinian] Authority. Military action stopped at the beginning of 1998 until the Aqsa Intifada began at the end of 2000 and military action witnessed geographical expansion.
All sources indicate that militarily, the Gaza Strip was under the control of Ahmed al Jabari who was Al Qassam’s deputy commander under Mohammed Deif. Al Jabari had a strong relationship with Meshaal to the extent that Israeli intelligence stated that he would only take orders from Meshaal directly. Palestinian sources in Gaza stated that al Jabari also had a good relationship with Zahhar.
As for the West Bank, it is difficult to locate a Qassam official due to security issues. It is unknown whether the Qassam Brigades in the West Bank receive direct orders from Gaza or from abroad. Either way, disputes or differences such as these within Hamas cannot influence the unity of the movement, which is still aware of the fact that it is in the eye of the storm and that its support is based on loyalty and allegiance to its leaders.