The Hamas leadership in Gaza has swallowed its pride and turned back into the arms of its former patron, Iran
Bad news for Israel: There are growing signs that the Palestinian Hamas movement is on the verge of reconciliation with Hezbollah and with Iran, its former banker and weapons supplier. Recent weeks have witnessed secret, intensely cooperative encounters among the three sides.
Western intelligence sources told me that soon – in a matter of just a couple of weeks – the Qatar-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, will visit Tehran, information corroborated by sources in Gaza. The highlight of Meshaal’s visit is expected to be a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Ironically, Meshaal was the target of a botched assassination attempt by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, in Jordan 18 years ago. Since surviving that (because King Hussein intervened after Israeli operatives were arrested, and the Mossad was compelled to hand over the antidote for a poison that had been sprayed into Meshaal’s ear), this radical Palestinian politician has become a major hero to Hamas followers).
The clandestine negotiations among the three parties are being brokered and facilitated by Qatar, which is a supporter of Hamas, and by the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Ramadan Shalah.
Shalah, who commutes between Damascus and Tehran, and his small terror group based in Gaza have developed a love-hate relationship with Hamas over the years.
On the one hand, PIJ accepts the predominance of the bigger and stronger Hamas and obeys most of its instructions. But occasionally PIJ defies Hamas’ orders and challenges its authority. For example, the rocket and mortar attack on southern Israel a few weeks ago was initiated by PIJ in defiance of Hamas’ efforts to maintain calm along the border.
Shalah visited Qatar recently to meet with local officials and, more importantly, with Meshaal. He then traveled to Tehran to lay the ground for the reconciliation, which is expected to be announced during Meshaal’s own trip to Iran.
The first milestone in Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas relations was marked in 2006, when Hamas organized a coup d’état in Gaza, toppling the Palestinian Authority government there. Despite their religious differences – Iran is Shiite and Hamas is Sunni – the organization benefited from the cozy and friendly relations. Iran showered Hamas with financial support to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, provided technical and military assistance – rockets, ammunition and even three small drones – and trained Hamas combatants in warfare techniques. From time to time, Iran asked Hezbollah to ship weapons in small boats from Lebanon to Gaza.
But the idyll ended bitterly some three years ago with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. Hamas sided with its Sunni brothers and denounced the Assad regime’s butchery of its own people. Hamas later joined the opposition forces and helped them recruit warriors from among Palestinian refugees in Syria.
In retaliation, Hamas’ leaders – including Meshaal – were expelled from Damascus. Iran and Hezbollah followed their Syrian ally, accordingly. The financial and weapons pipelines were blocked, but Hamas was lucky to find a new sponsor. Two years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is somewhat of a big brother to Hamas, came to power in Egypt. Its leader Mohammed Morsi became president and Hamas was ecstatic. It enjoyed a steady supply of money, goods from Egypt via Sinai to Gaza, and above all, the fact that Egyptian security forces turned a blind eye and allowed the smuggling of weapons through tunnels into Gaza.
But less than a year ago, Hamas’ roller coaster crashed once more. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were toppled by a quasi-military coup. The new military rulers in Cairo, led by Defense Minister General Abdel Fatah a-Sisi (most likely Egypt’s next president), accused Hamas of collaboration with radical Islamist jihadists operating in Sinai. The Sisi regime increased its security and intelligence cooperation with Israel and Hamas found itself under a double siege (from both Israel and Egypt).
Cornered and isolated, with no patrons, money, and fewer and fewer weapons, Hamas has had to swallow its pride and fall back into Iran’s arms. But Iran and Hezbollah wanted to humiliate Hamas first, and played hard to get; only in the last few weeks has a breakthrough been achieved.
If Hamas indeed turns again to Iran and Hezbollah — entering the Shiite fold — it will have to pay a price and carry out the orders of its old-new master.
Sooner or later, Hamas will be asked to cooperate with PIJ, to launch rockets into Israel and to begin a process of escalation, which could lead to a new round of war with Israel.
It is becoming clearer that a future conflict with Hamas will force Israel to go all-out, which would lead to a toppling of the Hamas government in Gaza – an idea that has already been voiced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and senior Israel Defense Forces officials. Such a scenario would raise the question of who will rule Gaza. Will it be handed over to the Palestinian Authority or will Israel reoccupy it? And what will the Egyptians have to say about this.
The renewal of the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran strategic alliance will undoubtedly create a new reality.