CATF Reports Mar. 2, 2017, 11:50am


After a decade of governance in Gaza, Hamas has entered into a new era of fragility and growing unpredictability. On top of a lingering economic crisis and the omnipresent threat of war with Israel, Hamas has grown steadily more extreme, leading to a potential overhaul of regional relations that could prove unstable for the terrorist group’s future.

The appointment of Yahya Sinwar to replace Ismail Haniyeh as the group’s leader in Gaza has set off new fears of a looming confrontation between Israel and Hamas. A founder of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and dubbed as “one of the most extreme leaders in the history of Hamas”, Sinwar was sentenced to four life terms by Israel in 1988 for his role in planning terrorist attacks, including the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers. After 22 years in Israeli jail, Sinwar was released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange for Hamas-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a deal that Sinwar himself strongly opposed on the grounds that more Palestinian prisoners should have been released.

Now the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Sinwar is eager to target the capture of Israeli soldiers to give Hamas an edge over their militarily superior adversaries. Early signs confirm this eagerness as Sinwar is reportedly already looking to “maximize and gain the most” in a potential deal to return two captive Israeli citizens in Gaza and the bodies of a pair of deceased soldiers to Israel. The appointment of a militant hardliner who categorically rejects reconciliation with Israel and is said to be focused on affairs in Gaza rather than the unity talks with Fatah represents the growing strains of populism and extremism in Hamas’ highest ranks.

Yet, the results of Hamas’ quiet internal elections were not the first signs of a trend of extremism in the group. Months prior to Sinwar’s appointment, Egyptian and Israeli officials had both cited intelligence claiming that the Gaza-based group was growing close to its terrorist neighbors in the Sinai Peninsula, ISIS’ Sinai Province. Although Hamas and ISIS have both openly opposed the ideological basis of the other – ISIS labeled Hamas as an apostate group – the shifting geopolitical interests and alliances in Gaza, Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula have led the groups to coordinate on occasion.

In Hamas-controlled Gaza, ISIS fighters have been quietly snuck over the border from the Sinai for medical treatment. According to Gaza-based sources, for example, dozens of ISIS fighters have received medical help in the Khan Yunis hospital in southern Gaza in what has been called “a deliberate policy of Hamas that began in mid-2015.” And the flow of fighters works both ways as dozens of members of Hamas’ military wing have reportedly fled to the Sinai Peninsula to join ISIS’ local branch. Cooperation between Hamas and the so-called Islamic State province is neither new nor necessarily permanent and is based on a shared political calculus of restricting Cairo’s control over the peninsula. While this calculus has changed at times – pitting Hamas closer to Egypt and against ISIS – few endeavors could better demonstrate the growing preference for extremist views in Hamas’ ranks than its cooperation with ISIS.

Just as Hamas has doubled down on its religious militarism - in its leadership and partnerships - Gaza's failed economy has forced the terrorist group to move closer to Cairo in hopes of increasing trade and loosening the country's tight control over its border. Egypt eased restrictions on exports to Gaza earlier this month, a decision many believe stemmed from the earlier Egypt-Hamas talks in Cairo, indicating improved ties between the two. The exports are also widely considered to be a reward for Hamas’ tightening security on the Sinai border following Egyptian allegations that the group was smuggling weapons and fighters to and from ISIS.

The leaders of Hamas, like many others in the Middle East, are weighing their options based on the political circumstances of the day. In a region in which diplomacy is often conducted through the barrel of a gun – or the poison of a tunnel – Hamas has attempted to delicately balance its clandestine coordination with ISIS with the pressing need for blockade relief in a struggling economy. So far, Hamas has managed some degree of success in this balance.  Its patrons in Tehran continue their support despite differences over the war in Syria, while Qatar remains one of the group’s primary financiers and arguably its most important supporter. Meanwhile, Egypt has occasionally allowed for the flow of goods to Gaza and ISIS has chosen to attack what they view as the “apostate enemy” in Sinai rather than the one in Gaza.

This, of course, can all change. The appointment of a militant hardliner to lead Hamas in Gaza may be welcomed by conservatives in Tehran, but it could mean more confrontations between Hamas and Israel and Egypt. While Hamas has so far managed to balance the interests of its regional supporters with its growing extremist tendencies – even working with ISIS – the appointment of Yahya Sinwar could drastically change the course of recent regional engagements solidified under Ismail Haniyeh.

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