Buffeted by the winds of the Arab Spring, the Hamas movement is transforming, with power shifting from its exiled leadership towards its government on the ground in Gaza, analysts say.
Recent months have seen the group forced to deal with the new regional realities created by the Arab uprisings, including the increasingly precarious situation in Damascus, where its leadership-in-exile is based.
The group has also moved towards reconciliation with its longtime rival Fatah, and its chief Khaled Meshaal has talked about the need to focus on peaceful protest.
But the shifts have created a new tension within the Islamist group, with the Gaza leadership appearing increasingly emboldened to voice differences of opinion with Meshaal and the leadership-in-exile.
On Saturday, Hamas announced that Meshaal did not plan to stand for reelection to the head of the movement, a decision that comes as the group experiences a fundamental reshaping, according to Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based Palthink think-tank.
“Hamas is going through a transformational process,” he told AFP, attributing the movement’s reshaping to both internal and external factors.
On the internal front, according to Shaban, some within the movement’s Gaza-based leadership believe Hamas has suffered as a result of being charged with improving the lives of 1.3 million people in Gaza.
Externally, Shaban says, Hamas is caught between the differing fates of the Muslim Brotherhood — the organisation that gave birth to Hamas — in Egypt and Syria.
Hamas is caught between “the hope of Egypt,” where the Muslim Brotherhood has swept democratic elections, and “the pressure of Syria,” where a government crackdown is targeting activists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation in Syria has been particularly problematic for Hamas, which is eager to avoid being seen as interfering in internal issues, but also finds it hard to see the Muslim Brotherhood being targeted.
“The atrocities of the Syrian regime are inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is no longer able to maintain its presence in Damascus,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.
Internal rumblings and external pressures have helped create a situation in which Meshaal, long considered a radical, now appears more pragmatic than Hamas’s Gaza leadership, Abu Saada said.
“When Meshaal was getting complete support from the Syrian regime, from Iran, he connected himself with this camp, so he could not make compromises,” he said.
But the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, along with his detachment from Iran and Syria, appear to have shifted Meshaal’s thinking, convincing him that peaceful “popular resistance” can be effective.
“That is something new,” Abu Saada said, acknowledging that “there has been no consensus within Hamas regarding this issue.”
Mahmud Zahar, one of Gaza’s senior Hamas officials, notably responded that “armed resistance can be popular.”
Zahar’s willingness to challenge Meshaal, on issues ranging from resistance to reconciliation, are another sign of the shifting dynamics in the movement, Abu Saada said.
“The balance of power is shifting from outside to inside. Hamas’s leadership in Gaza is on its own territory,” he said, noting Hamas in Gaza is increasingly less dependent on regional aid.
The Hamas government has a 2012 budget worth $769 million, a 22 percent increase over 2011, based on an expected intake of $174 million dollars in tariffs and taxes, particularly from the flourishing Egypt-Gaza tunnel industry.
The Hamas government is also wielding the freedom of movement that has come with Egypt’s decision to open its border with Gaza.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya has already completed one major tour to Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia — his first since taking office. He is reportedly considering a second trip soon, with stops in Qatar and Iran.
“Haniya’s visit has halted the political siege on Gaza,” said Walid al-Mudallal, a political science professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, noting the movement’s parliamentary delegation visit last week to Switzerland to take part in the the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting.
According to Mudallal, “Hamas is closing the gap with the Palestinian consensus to achieve reconciliation, and to be able to deal with the international community.”
One wildcard in the movement’s transformation is the future role of its powerful armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, once considered largely under Meshaal’s direction.
According to Abu Saada, that allegiance could be shifting.
“The armed wing of Hamas, Ezzedine al-Qassam, gives loyalty to whoever is giving the money to pay for the weapons,” he said.
“Ezzedine al-Qassam has been showing more loyalty to the Hamas in Gaza.”