Hamas styles itself as a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement whose stated goal is the liberation of Palestine and confronting the “Zionist project”. Nevertheless, since its creation in 1987 during the First Intifada, the group’s leaders have come to accept a two-state solution and political participation as more attainable goals. This has created apparent contradictions in Hamas’s positions, whereby it continues to reject Israel and the 1993 Oslo Accords on ideological grounds, while having implicitly recognised these realities through its participation in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
These strategic divergences reflect the heterogeneous nature of the group, in which various factions compete to attain their goals. Broadly, Hamas has three main factions: hardliners, who adhere to a strict Islamist ideology and are more willing than others to resort to violence; moderates, who seek engagement with the international community by softening the movement’s positions and prioritising non-violent resistance; and pragmatists, who try to do what works in the here and now, including both violent and non-violent activity.
Today, pragmatists and hardliners have more influence than moderates within the group. But Hamas’s activities lack strategic focus, due to its weakness in the face of international isolation, splits within the Palestinian movement, and the pressure of governing the Gaza Strip – as it has since the eruption of a short-lived civil war against the secular Fatah party in 2007. These activities are mostly designed to provoke a response from Israel and the international community. Yet, despite this lack of strategic focus, Hamas remains unwilling to cross its red lines, such as recognising Israel or giving up its weapons.
Between resistance and governance
As a consequence of the dire economic and humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, the group’s popularity is declining. But it retains a degree of legitimacy based on two factors: firstly, its ability to maintain law and order through its security forces in areas previously plagued by gang violence and family feuds; and, secondly, its displays of armed resistance against Israel.
These twin characteristics – as an armed group and a de facto government – have led to a contradictory policy on Israel. Hamas has fought several wars against Israel and regularly uses calibrated violence to strengthen its domestic standing and negotiating position. Yet the group has also developed a transactional relationship with Israel through third-party mediation (via the United Nations, Egypt, and Qatar), in which it ceases attacks and actively polices other armed groups – in return for Israel easing the blockade of Gaza.
Pragmatists within the movement would strongly support a move to institutionalise this relationship with Israel through a permanent truce that does not compromise on core Palestinian rights. However, the potential for such an agreement is limited by the sides’ unwillingness to officially engage with each other. Israel is reluctant to do so lest it confer legitimacy on Hamas, and is constrained by its own political landscape. Meanwhile, the group is concerned that this would erode its domestic legitimacy and make it indistinguishable from the Fatah-controlled PA, which rules the West Bank.
The rise and fall of the moderates
Moderates once held the upper hand within Hamas. After the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, they argued that greater moderation would open up space for political engagement with Europe and the United States. This, they reasoned, would win Hamas greater legitimacy and provide a more effective means of advancing Palestinian rights. Key to this, in their view, was halting violence against Israeli civilians and constructively engaging with the Palestinian political process. Their arguments initially won the day.
As a result, Hamas announced a halt to suicide bombings against Israelis and took part in legislative elections for the first time in January 2006. After unexpectedly winning the contest, Hamas formed a new PA government headed by Ismael Haniyeh – under the auspices of Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah’s leader), who won the presidential election the previous year. Hamas’s electoral victory came after the George W Bush administration exerted intense pressure on Abbas to take further steps towards ‘democratisation’. Working through Qatar, the US pushed Hamas to run in the legislative elections, expecting the movement to lose and thereby strengthen Fatah (Washington’s favoured interlocutor in Palestine).
The moderates’ gamble on international engagement suffered when the US persuaded the other members of the Quartet – the European Union, Russia, and the UN – to go along with it in rejecting the election result, asserting that any “future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations”. The European Council formally endorsed these conditions and expanded their scope to encompass Hamas as a whole. Sanctions and a formal no-contact policy followed. They remain in place 14 years later. The Quartet’s conditions continue to be a non-starter for Hamas, due to the movement’s ideological red lines and its need to retain popular support. Equally problematic from its view is that these conditions are framed as preconditions for dialogue rather than as the product of any solution to the conflict.
Despite this, there has been some limited diplomatic engagement between the group and Europe. Hamas leaders in Gaza received international visitors and were invited to several EU capitals between June and November 2006. These visits opened up avenues of contact with France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. In an important signal, UK prime minister Tony Blair even allowed two senior Hamas members – Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh’s moderate political adviser, and MP Sayed Abu Musamih – to visit the UK during that brief period. The two quietly held meetings with figures close to the UK government.
These discussions allowed moderate leaders to persuade their more hardline peers of the benefits of continued engagement, in the face of public opposition to the group from European governments. Significantly, these efforts culminated in a proposal by Yousef and Swiss officials for a rolling armistice under international supervision – an initiative that key Hamas leaders initially supported. In exchange for a halt to all hostilities, Israel would reduce its presence in Palestinian cities, grant the Palestinians greater freedoms, expand commercial activities there, reopen Gaza’s airport and seaport, and allow Palestinians to travel to Jordan and Egypt. The proposal’s ultimate goal was to build confidence, thereby laying the groundwork for genuine progress towards a two-state solution.
The joint initiative heralded a potentially important transformation in the group’s thinking. It was, however, presented prematurely, before the necessary domestic and international backing was in place. This made it easy for Abbas to derail the initiative. He rejected the agreement out of concern that the effort could diminish his standing, prompting hardliners in Hamas to follow suit. Its failure was also a product of US and Israeli pressure on Blair to halt the talks.
The final blow came in 2017, when Hamas moderates again gambled on international engagement. They believed that producing a new political platform that formally endorsed the two-state solution and renounced anti-Semitism would encourage European engagement. However, the international community ignored Hamas’s Document of General Principles and Policies, inadvertently helping hardliners increase their influence.
A degree of low-level engagement continues to this day. Yet these failures – combined with the EU’s official policy of no contact with Hamas – have given the group the impression that Europe is subordinate to US foreign policy. These factors have reinforced a belief within Hamas that Europeans remain, in the words of one hardliner, “enemies of Palestinians and Islamists just like Israel”.
The rise of the hardliners
EU policy on Hamas has helped weaken the moderates, by undermining their argument that political engagement is a better alternative to violence. These shifting power dynamics were reflected in the group’s 2017 internal elections, in which Haniyeh, a pragmatist, came in first place, closely followed by hardliner Saleh Arouri. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a moderate, came in last place.
While the moderates failed to break the movement’s isolation or achieve any tangible results given Europe’s refusal to seriously engage, the hardliners can boast of having liberated 1,027 Palestinian detainees in 2011, in exchange for releasing one kidnapped Israeli soldier. More recently, hardliners such as Fathi Hammad have claimed credit for the monthly flow of Qatari cash into Gaza in exchange for maintaining calm on the border with Israel (including by halting rocket fire and the use of airborne incendiary devices). This came after the moderate preference for keeping the Great Return March protests non-violent failed to elicit any positive reaction from Israel or the international community.
The failure of the EU’s no-contact policy with the group and increasing Palestinian political fragmentation, combined with the limited successes that have come from indirect talks between Hamas and Israel, show that engagement with all Palestinian actors, including Hamas, is an indispensable step in supporting any peace process. History strongly suggests that, if the international community continues to boycott Hamas, this will further marginalise moderate voices seeking a diplomatic track or more sustainable calm with Israel. History also shows that engaging with, and strengthening, moderate positions within the movement can produce positive results. The fragile, but nonetheless substantial, gains produced through the Blair and Swiss initiatives with Hamas are a testament to this.
To be sure, EU member states remain deeply divided on how to approach Hamas. But, given that Hamas has significant public support, their dismissal of the movement positions it as a spoiler in future attempts at diplomacy. This could undermine future Palestinian elections and domestic reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which are crucial to progress towards peace. Furthermore, boycotting Hamas has hampered European efforts to ease the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.
The EU can help reverse these negative trends. But it will have to engage with Hamas by ending the no-contact policy and belatedly acknowledging its political document as a positive step forward. Europeans can condition levels of engagement on the development of Hamas’s political positions in support of continued political engagement but, without some form of contact, they will be unlikely to make progress.
Reopening channels of dialogue with moderate Hamas leaders and ensuring that such channels produce tangible results – such as rolling back Israeli restrictions on Gaza and supporting the group’s participation in future Palestinian elections – could empower moderates. This would come at a time when Hamas has been forced closer to Iran due to the group’s diplomatic isolation by Sunni Arab states, increasingly dire financial difficulties, and eagerness to show its supporters that it can improve their lives. These are particularly important factors given that Fatah and Hamas have pledged to hold another election by April 2021.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and analyst from the Gaza Strip and a student of Security Risk Management at Copenhagen University.
This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.