Then the “Arab Spring” came to Syria, home base of the external leadership. Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood franchise, faced a dilemma. The Iran-led regional alliance of which it was a part was crushing an uprising at least partially led by its fellow Muslim Brothers in Syria.
Hamas made its choice — in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, Iranian donations have rapidly depleted. The external leadership has scattered in a number of directions from Damascus: Meshaal is in Qatar; Mousa Abu Marzook is in Cairo; Imad Alami has returned to Gaza. There are members as far afield as Istanbul and Khartoum.
The internal leadership, meanwhile, has increased revenues from the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. This is helping to make up for the decline in Iranian support.
Reports suggest that control of the movement’s budget and of the Qassam Brigades has now been removed from Meshaal, though he retains his formal position as the movement’s overall leader. The internal leadership also headed off an attempt by Meshaal to cobble together a “reconciliation” deal with the West Bank PA in February. Such a deal would have required Hamas to dismantle the structures of its government in Gaza.
Palestinian nationalism has traditionally favored words and gestures over concrete deeds. This is one of the sources for its historical failure to produce anything much tangible of note. Palestinian Islamism has a different approach: in line with the traditional strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, it understands the importance of concrete, patient building on the ground.
This does not mean that Hamas in Gaza has lost sight or will lose sight of the maximalist ideological goals of the movement. It does mean, however, that the split in the Palestinian national movement should now finally be internalized as a long-term development. The more formidable, serious element of that movement is in control of Gaza. The Islamist one-party statelet in Gaza, in turn, is allied with the trend that is proving the major beneficiary of the Arab upheavals of 2011 — namely, Sunni Islamism.
If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt, Hamas-controlled Gaza may yet become a point of strategic importance as a friction point with Israel, which could lead to broader tensions.