BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – For nearly two decades, Hamas fought Israel inside the Palestinian territories and inside Israel with suicide bombings and rockets, while outside, its overseas arm raised money and launched political campaigns. Major decisions were made collectively by its leaders, inside and out.
But with its stunning election victory, Hamas must now dive into the day-to-day business of governing, and that has raised new questions about who actually runs the group the United States calls terrorist.
Some foresee future conflict in an organization previously known for its high discipline and cohesion: Hamas officials newly elected in Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinian legislature will have to deal with Israel in future, even if indirectly. But the group’s main political leadership in Syria may prove more hardline.
The question has come to the fore as Western and Arab countries pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Newly elected Hamas leaders from Palestinian areas and those in Syria will negotiate jointly with the current Palestinian leader to try to create a government.
Hamas officials are quick to say the group is bound by one decision, made collectively.
“No one takes a unilateral decision,” Moussa Abu Marzouk, the right-hand man to the group’s “supreme leader” said Wednesday in Damascus, in an interview with The Associated Press. “There are no hard-line policies and moderate policies. The decision is discussed by the leaders and afterwards a decision is made and everyone abides by it.”
Another Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Hamas members in Syria will act like a governing party pushing a political program while Hamas members inside the Palestinian government will execute that policy and run the day-to-day government.
Yet many experts believe the inside arm may eventually have the most influence, just as earlier, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s presence on the ground eventually gave him an edge over rivals outside. “In years gone by … the ones outside were more extreme…. because the ones inside have to face reality,” said Efraim Halevy, chief of Israel’s Mossad from 1998-2002.
“The people inside are the more powerful now because they won the elections, and they had to confront Israel over the years,” Halevy said. He stressed, however, that Hamas does not a strict, pyramid-shaped hierarchy but more of “an amoebic structure.”
Nevertheless, its highest leader is thought to be Khaled Mashaal, a former physics teacher who lives in Syria and who heads the group’s political bureau, which has between seven and nine members.
Mashaal is thought to have final control over both the outside political wing and the various political wings of Hamas in Gaza and West Bank, plus a separate political wing dealing with prisoners. Inside the Palestinian areas, Hamas’ West Bank branch tends to be more moderate than its Gaza branch.
The political wings are thought to set Hamas’ general policy on suicide and other attacks, but not carry them out day-to-day.
Despite Mashaal’s role as top political leader, key policy decisions are usually made by the secretive Shura Council, whose estimated 50 members live both inside and outside Palestinian areas. The council had the final say on the list of Hamas candidates for the Jan. 25 elections, for example.
Any move to change policy toward Israel would almost certainly have to win its approval. In practice, not all Shura Council members can meet in one place because of security worries and travel restrictions.
The three political “decision centers,” in Gaza, West Bank and Syria, thus communicate in other ways, said the Hamas official who requested anonymity.
Those are thought to include e-mail, text message and mobile phones.
Mashaal’s political arm, based in Syria, gets much of its power from its role as fund-raiser. Hamas officials say the group receives money from individual Palestinians and Islamic charities, as well as from the zakkat, or Muslim alms. Because the United States calls Hamas a terror group, it can not get money openly from Arab governments.
One other important, and notorious, wing of Hamas is the military arm that carries out attacks on Israel. Hamas’ political leaders insist they don’t give instructions to those who carry out attacks. However, the political leadership is believed to provide broad guidelines to the military wing, such as approving suicide bombings, according to both western diplomats and others familiar with the group.
Local commanders in Gaza and West Bank then have the authority to decide when and how to launch attacks, under the guidance of one military chief for both areas. That reduces the chances of a security leak, which would enable the Israelis to stop an operation.
“There is not a direct line that divides the two,” said Halevy, the former Israeli intelligence official. Speaking of one Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, he said, “Certainly now, he would make decisions like one made a year ago to make a kind of cease-fire.”
The subdivisions of power spring from the group’s founding in 1987, just after the Palestinians’ first uprising. The group then was essentially an offshoot of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, handling mostly charitable work, and it has retained its charities and clinics. But after the uprising, Hamas began launching attacks,
essentially putting its foreign relations and money-raising arms outside Palestinian areas, and its operations arm inside the West Bank and Gaza. It has since managed to stay cohesive even after Israel’s assassination of its founder, the elderly Sheik Ahmed Yassin, killed by an Israeli helicopter missile in 2004 while in his wheelchair on a Gaza street. For example, once Hamas decided to run for elections, there was no public opposition afterward. But things could get more difficult now.
“They are still grappling with new realities,” Halevy said. “They are not sure how they want to govern.”