Although Hamas could once comfortably ally itself with fellow Sunni powers while at the same time receiving aid and hospitality from Shiite forces in Syria and Iran, the region’s growing sectarian divide means the group is likely to have to pick sides.
It might seem an easy choice. Sunni Islamic political movements are awakening across the region, and Hamas’s parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is ascendant in next-door Egypt. Yet the power and policies of those forces are still evolving, making a wholesale split from Iran, a Syria ally and Hamas’s prime patron, risky for the group. Wavering, on the other hand, carries its own price: Hamas considers itself a populist movement, and polls indicate that Palestinians support the pro-democracy wave sweeping the region.
In interviews here, Hamas’s leaders depicted ties to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad as a liability, and they distanced themselves from Iran. One senior leader, Salah al-Bardaweel, said Hamas fighters, long viewed as Iranian proxies, would hold fire in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites.
“If Israel strikes Iran, Iran will defend itself. Hamas doesn’t have any desire to be in a regional war,” Bardaweel said.
“Hamas cannot close its eyes to bloodshed like that taking place in Syria. It is Arab blood,” he said, calling the Syrian government’s crackdown “embarrassing.”
The path Hamas pursues, although far from certain, could sway its stumbling efforts to reconcile with the rival Palestinian faction Fatah, influence the moribund peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and transform the dynamics of the isolated Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli blockade since 2006. Hamas, which wrested control of the coastal enclave in a bloody battle with Fatah five years ago, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.
Hamas’s position on the Syrian uprising, vague for much of the past year, became clear last month in Cairo, where Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stood with Muslim Brotherhood members and told a boisterous crowd that he supported the protesters. But in interviews in Gaza, Hamas officials still seemed eager to depict themselves as straddling two sides, insisting that their policy was neutral and in favor of the Syrian people, not against Assad. One key reason, several officials said, are the half-million Palestinian refugees who live in Syria and who might face repercussions for Hamas’s perceived disloyalty.