THE ISLAMISTS OF PALESTINE ON THE EMIR’S ROUTE

by Glauco D’Agostino

A diplomatic boost by Qatar is fostering reconciliation between Ḥamās and the Movement for Islamic Jihād in Palestine

20121121-Cairo-Hms-Ismc-JhdThe mid-March meeting in Dōḥa between Khālid Masha’l, Head of Ḥamās Political Bureau, and Ramaḍān Shallāḥ, Secretary-General of the Movement for Islamic Jihād in Palestine, highlights a change underway in the Middle Eastern geo-politics, a result of new strategic balances among the regional and global players in international politics. Let’s step back a few months in the Arabian Peninsula political theater.

Last December in Kuwait, while attending a conference at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (an organization established May 25th, 1981 under the Treaty of Abu Dhabi), Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blamed Qatar of financing terrorism in Syria. In late February, at a meeting in Riyāḍ, Saudis, quite hurt, asked once again the new Emir of Qatar Shaykh Tamīm ath-Thānī to withdraw from his supposed policy of supporting Syrian al-Qāʿida-affiliated groups. On March 5th, Riyāḍ even called for closure of Al Jazeera and Brookings Dōḥa Center on a charge to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood, and hurled anathema against Qatar for a removal of the joint Gulf Cooperation Council defense policy (i.e., policy of solidarity with the Saudi Arabian interests): the most striking result has been a recall of Riyāḍ, Abu Dhabi and Manāma ambassadors from Dōḥa, thereby breaking off unity of the Gulf Arab countries, especially in their alliance built against Iran.

How such events link up with the Masha’l-Shallāḥ meeting? There is a clear connection with the Washington openings to Tehrān on a nuclear deal, the obvious Saudi reaction in terms of relations cooling with the U.S., and a realignment of the Qatari diplomacy in terms of a relations review with Iran; the latter issue is mainly about the Syrian dossier, upon which Emir Tamīm has reconsidered his country involvement (according to Saudi requests), but, on the other hand, offsetting this move through an enhancement of his support for Islamist movements in the region, such as the Palestinian Ḥamās, the Lebanese Ḥizb Allāh, the Yemeni al-Ḥūthiyyūn. It should be emphasized, too, an interfaith approach of the Qatari policy, when one may note that Ḥamās is a Sunni movement, Ḥizb Allāh are Twelver Shiites and al-Ḥūthiyyūn Zaydi Shiites. All this is in a stark contrast to the current Saudi interests, that see Riyāḍ as opposed to the alleged Iranian Ayatollahs’ expansionism, as increasingly less antithetic to Israeli protesting stance towards the USA, and more and more as involved in the bloody oppressive policy led by the Egyptian totalitarianism.

Thus, Qatar presumably arises today as an element of mediating and overcoming the Shiite-Sunni divergence in the region, in view of both a more effective liberation struggle of peoples (e.g. the Palestinian issue) and new participatory models in managing Islamic societies.

The Masha’l-Shallāḥ rendez-vous has come before a likely forthcoming meeting in Tehrān between the two Palestinian leaders and the Iranian government authorities, perhaps even Ayatollah Khāmene’i, the Supreme Guide. And that suggests a possible mitigation of Ḥamās intransigent positions towards Damascus, and closer ties to Ḥizb Allāh, while, in parallel, the Masha’l’s movement is filing down historical differences with the Movement for Islamic Jihād in Palestine, a steady all along Tehrān ally.

The point is Ḥamās has greatly suffered its distancing policy from Iranian political setting, not generally accepted within the movement, and above all it is suffering a tightening of economic conditions in Gaza and a political isolation following the Morsi’s downfall in Egypt; all these factors are likely to affect the government stability. Prime Minister Ismā’īl Haniyeh, among the supporters of a close relationship with Iran, had tried upholding this course last year, during the April elections for a renewal of the movement Political Bureau, but he had to give way, facing the consent Masha’l received, being at that time allegedly backed by Morsi’s Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, and notoriously ready to cooperate with Palestinian President Maḥmud ‘Abbās. However, it is also true this has been a different political season, now buried by the Saudi activism in contrasting Qatari and Turkish hegemony in the Middle East, and by the heavy prior mentioned Egyptian affairs.

The event sped up the Ḥamās distancing from Tehrān had been, more than any other, the eruption of the Syrian domestic situation in 2011, followed by the painful civil war afflicting the country, yet. Ḥamās, neutral at first, had had to take a position in favor of Sunni insurgents, primarily because under pressure by the Palestinian public opinion; afterward, since 2012, on the basis of the new democratic Egypt foreign policy (opposed to the `Alawīte leadership in Syria), it had closed its Damascus HQ, that had replaced in 2001 the Amman’s, after being forced to leave the Hāshemite country in 1999. Relations with the Ayatollahs, however, had been previously strengthened, following Ḥamās victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections and the 2007 coup Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh suffered, resulting in his reaction and acquiring control of Gaza. This partnership had been followed by a better coordination with Ḥizb Allāh and Syria, with the aim of building a resistance axis in support of the Palestinian national struggle against Israeli occupiers.

The option of working together with a Shiite reality was quite reasonable, given the softer stance toward Israel maintained by Egypt and Jordan, which had signed peace treaties with Tel Aviv, respectively in 1979 and 1995. Nevertheless, the Shiite influence exerted by Tehrān on Ḥamās had never properly overflowed on a religious, ideological or cultural level, and it maintained a full compliance to Sunni identity of the movement and especially of its Palestinian grassroots base. On the other hand, Ḥamās, as a Muslim Brothers’ offshoot, had avoided to emphasize any doctrinal and dogmatic disputes, not only for obvious reasons of political expediency, but also in accordance with the Brotherhood principles of rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites and of solidarity among Muslims, particularly when Islam is under attack from external forces. The Muslim Brotherhood itself, when Israel assaulted Lebanon in 2006 and the Shiites of Ḥizb Allāh sprang up in defense of the tiny Country of Cedars, granted a full solidarity with them. And anyway, in the specific case of Khomeini’s revolution, there have been many Sunni representatives who have a positive verdict on the Iranian political change, as an authentic Islamic Revolution: citing for all, the theologian Shaykh Syed Abū ‘l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī, who verbalized in this sense right after those events, by calling upon a cooperation of the Islamic movements with the new Iran.

Conversely, the Movement for Islamic Jihād in Palestine, being born the same year, has always had a historical affinity with the Iranian Revolution and its leadership. As a movement much smaller than Ḥamās, it had always opposed its hegemony in Gaza, and in 2007 it attended the bloody al-Fataḥ attempt to oust the Muslim Brotherhood influence from the Strip. For this reason, an Iranian support to Shallāḥ has always strongly bothered Ḥamās, but, however, it had not prevented the latter to forge a strategic alliance, also because mindful of a 1990 Iranian aid it requested and obtained in support of the First Intifāḍa.

Shaykh Ramaḍān Shallāḥ, who heads the movement Shura, is a native to the Gaza Strip (as it was the other founder Fathi Shaqaqi, assassinated by Mossad), and such argument clears up the Islamic Jihād stronger presence in this territory, in close contact with Ḥamās activities. Of course, this coexistence gives also rise to frictions among the Saraya al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigades), an Islamic Jihād armed group, and the ‘Izz ad-Dīn al-Qassām Brigades, the Ḥamās military wing; such a cohabitation is anyway affected by different outlooks of the respective movements: whereas Ḥamās is a governmental entity and its feature is to pay attention to social action, its Islamist contenders put more emphasis on warfare, by realizing greater effectiveness in offensive military attacks.

On the Syrian dossier, the Islamic Jihād, unlike Ḥamās, has been very careful not to get involved in, by proclaiming clear neutrality, despite its political and strategic ties with Tehrān. However, it has strengthened the military coordination with Ḥizb Allāh in the fight against Israel. In turn, this Lebanese organization, a Damascus ally, has always had great relationships of political and military cooperation with Ḥamās, which instead is opposing the Syrian government power.

With regard to the Palestinian government, the Movement for Islamic Jihād in Palestine has an ambivalent position: while refusing the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian Legislative Council, as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the starting points for dialogue with Israel, somehow it acknowledges the roles of PLO and President Mahmud ‘Abbas as leader of the political-institutional participatory process. Anyway, over the last year the jihādist movement has been making remarkable advances in searching unity of the Palestinian liberation forces and in acknowledging the other Islamist movements active in the region, though taking into account their respective peculiarity: the Dōḥa meeting is a clear evidence of it.

Moreover, another meeting has discreetly marked the chronicles of recent weeks in Dōḥa, now Khālid Masha’l’s usual residence: the one have involved Ramaḍān Shallāḥ and the young Emir of Qatar, in the presence of ʿAzmī Bišāra, the Christian Palestinian politician who is Israeli citizen and currently based in the Gulf country. The latter would be asked by the Emirate authorities to plan and launch a modern media international network, working alongside Al Jazeera and entrusted of promoting the Sovereign’s strategic view in a new Middle Eastern and global scene.

In short, the ground-breaking Qatar of Emir Tamīm ath-Thānī, following the leading role played by his father Ḥamad bin Khalīfa in the Arab political reform, may now act as a bridge connecting the most effective actors of political Islam and linking together geo-political needs to the extraordinary vitality of social and resistance movements, emanating from the depths of Middle Eastern societies. By hosting two leaders of major Palestinian liberation movements, and precisely because it places the focus of the Islamic world on the Palestinian issue, Qatar is breaking free from the Saudi paradigm and is arising back to the center of innovation (diplomatic as well), experiencing unexplored paths of religious rapprochement among polyhedral confessions of Islam.

The move is not easy. But often the major projects need the long-lasting time of history. Perhaps, that time may have come!

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