CAIRO — As the conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip intensifies, Arab governments are throwing their weight behind the territory’s long-isolated Islamist leaders in a reflection of the region’s shifting political dynamics after nearly two years of upheaval.
Long kept at a distance by Arab autocrats wary of Hamas’s hard-line ideology, the group has found a new set of highly influential friends — including the democratically elected governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, all U.S. allies. Those backers give Hamas stronger standing internationally, and perhaps greater room to maneuver as it faces the second major Israeli operation in Gaza in four years.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signaled the extent of the shift on Friday when he sent his prime minister to Gaza in a show of solidarity with Hamas. The move was a radical break from the policy of Morsi’s ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and came as Israel was attempting to turn up the heat on a group it considers a terrorist organization.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil toured Gaza alongside Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a longtime Mubarak foe, in the highest-profile Egyptian visit to Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007. Morsi, meanwhile, warned Israel of a “high price” for continued military operations in the coastal enclave.
“Egypt will not leave Gaza alone,” Morsi said in a speech to a crowd of worshippers at a mosque on Cairo’s outskirts. “I speak on behalf of all of the Egyptian people in saying that Egypt today is different from Egypt yesterday, and the Arabs today are different from the Arabs of yesterday.”
Morsi’s words were echoed Friday throughout the region, where Islamist movements with ideological ties to Hamas have gained influence through popular uprisings and elections.
Morsi, a longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader, came to power this year in elections in which he defeated a candidate with long-standing ties to Egypt’s military, which under Mubarak was a staunch defender of the nation’s peace treaty with Israel.
“Egypt has changed. The era of Morsi is not going to be like the era of Mubarak,” said Mohamed Bayoumi, a social worker who joined hundreds of protesters outside Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque on Friday. “Morsi will fight the Zionists with all his force.”
Hamas, which is also considered a terrorist organization by the United States, has run Gaza in relative isolation since it seized control following a 2006 victory in Palestinian elections.
Fenced in by an Israeli blockade and by the tacit consent of authoritarian Arab regimes that disdained Hamas’s Islamist politics, the group long relied on two international pariahs — Iran and Syria — for support.
But the outbreak of a revolt in Syria shattered ties between Hamas and the government of President Bashar al-Assad and forced a rift between Hamas and Shiite Iran. Hamas has since repositioned itself, gaining a new set of regional partners at a critical time.
Newly democratic Egypt and Tunisia, along with regionally influential Qatar and Turkey, have increasingly assumed the roles of Hamas’s new allies.
“Hamas’s new regional sponsors and allies — now that they’ve forsaken Damascus and turned their back, for the most part, on Iran — are members in good standing with the international community,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation in Washington.
Hamas’s new support has given it stronger backing than it had during a 2008-2009 Israeli military offensive into Gaza, during which the Arab world largely stood aside.
The leaders of the new Middle East have promised that this time will be different.
On Saturday, Tunisia’s foreign minister is slated to visit Gaza just as Egypt’s Morsi convenes a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss a solution to the crisis.
“The entire regional calculus has changed considerably,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “And Egypt is at the forefront of that change.”
But Hamas’s standing at home has also changed. Palestinians have grown disillusioned with the group’s more moderate rival, Fatah, and its weak Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank. Many Arabs, both in the region and within the Palestinian territories, have come to see Hamas as the only viable challenge to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.
“The choice of resistance is the only choice,” Mahmoud al-Ramahi, a senior Hamas leader, said in the West Bank on Friday. The Palestinian Authority had failed, he said. “They are so weak, nobody cares about them.”
Spurred by its departure from its longtime base in Damascus this year, the Hamas leadership has embarked on a series of diplomatic visits throughout the region and has opened an office in Doha, Qatar’s capital.
The crown prince of Qatar reciprocated in October, visiting Gaza and signaling a major break in Hamas’s isolation.
Arab politicians and protesters said Friday they were confident that there would be more of a shift in Hamas’s favor.
“What we’ve done till now is positive,” said Sayed Suleiman, an anti-Israel protester outside the al-Azhar mosque. Suleiman said he expected the outpouring of support for Gaza to intensify in the coming days.
“If Israel doesn’t respond to these positive steps,” he said, “then that’s a message to the world that Israel wants war instead of diplomatic measures.”
Karin Brulliard in Jerusalem, Sufian Taha in Ramallah, West Bank, and Amer Shakhatreh in Cairo contributed to this report.