Gaza’s Hamas movement is seeking a rapprochement with the Palestinian leader once regarded as its greatest enemy, as the Islamist group faces unprecedented challenges from all sides.
Hamas’s leadership is in talks with Mohammed Dahlan – the exiled former Fatah leader in Gaza whose supporters Hamas defeated when it wrested control of the territory in 2007 in a brief but bloody civil war – amid hopes he can persuade Egypt to come to the aid of Gazans struggling under the decade-long Israeli-led blockade.
The moves come as Hamas’s position has been weakened by recent developments in the region, including Saudi-led moves against Qatar, once a major financial contributor to Gaza.
Hamas is also under further pressure from a new, aggressive policy by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who governs in the West Bank, and who last month asked Israel to substantially cut its electricity supply to Gaza’s 2 million residents.
The electricity crisis, aimed at forcing Hamas to return the territory to the PA’s control, comes on top of Gaza’s many other woes. Abbas has also cut the salaries of thousands of former PA employees, many his supporters, who he had instructed not to work for the Hamas government.
Israel’s increasing restrictions on exit permits for Gaza residents, an escalating sewage crisis that is contaminating the strip’s beaches, and high levels of unemployment, are all contributing to a mounting sense of exhaustion in the strip.
And for Hamas, the pressure from Abbas has followed other setbacks for the Islamist group on the international front, most recently the loss of Turkish backing in the renewal of relations between Israel and Turkey.
Faced with its mounting problems, Hamas has sought reconciliation with Dahlan, a key Abbas rival, who advises the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, and is close to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as well as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – all key figures in the recent Saudi-led moves against Qatar and Iran.
The most visible sign so far of a thaw in relations with Cairo and Dahlan was the announcement last week that Hamas will construct a buffer zone along the Egyptian border, demanded by Cairo to prevent the movement of Salafist militants between Gaza and northern Sinai and the smuggled goods that they rely on for income.
The hope – among Hamas officials involved at least – is that Cairo will eventually reopen the southern Rafah border crossing that connects Gaza with Egypt, and the outside world, which would represent the most significant warming in relations since the 2013 overthrow of the Hamas-friendly Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt under Mohammed Morsi.
The overtures, say insiders, have been driven by Hamas’s new and reclusive leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who grew up with Dahlan in the same south Gaza town of Khan Younis – although the two had not met since their teens until last month’s face to face meeting in Cairo.
Among issues under discussion in recent negotiations are the establishment of a fund to pay reparations to the families of the 700 killed on both sides in the bloody struggle for power between Hamas and Fatah in the period 2006-7 after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections.
Also driving the potential realignment is reported fury in Cairo directed at Abbas, not least for his continuing purge of Dahlan supporters, who Abbas sees as rivals.
Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad, told the Guardian that the wider regional realignments led by Saudi Arabia had put the movement, and Gaza, under renewed pressure.
“What is happening now among Arab countries is that someone is trying to change the political dynamic in the region, and this instability is not good for us and other countries although it benefits Israel.
“There are countries that want Gaza to be part of the regional equation, others that want to shut gates or punish Hamas. We understand the contradictions. If you have good relations with Qatar, Egypt will be angry. If you have good relations with Iran, Saudi will be angry.
“We are in a very critical situation so we have to be very careful. We need to be very sober to try to keep balance.”
Hamad paints the mooted rapprochement with Dahlan as part of that calculation.
“Our understanding is that Dahlan is part of the political game in the region. We know he has his popularity in Gaza and the West Bank, so we cannot ignore him.
“In the past, people have tried to meet with him but this time the situation is much better because Dahlan understands that without reconciliation with Hamas he can’t be part of the [Palestinian] political game. Because of that he has promised to help in handling the crisis in Gaza.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that the reconciliation between Hamas, Dahlan and Egypt can be achieved so easily, or without cost.
“Where’s the trajectory in all this?” asked one. “It is to push Gaza and the West Bank ever further apart?”
The moves have led to swirling claims and counter claims, including that as part of the negotiations, Egypt is seeking a deal to instal Dahlan as Gaza’s political leader – a claim denied by Hamas officials.
A number of sources who spoke to by the Guardian, however, see Hamas’s moves towards a rapprochement with Dahlan in particular as a not a sign of pragmatism, but forced on them by circumstance.
The three-way struggle – not least Abbas’s role in it – is alarming some right wing Israeli ministers including defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who warned recently that Abbas’s moves risked “pulling Israel into a war with Hamas.”
What is true is that as Hamas has become ever more isolated, Gaza has drifted even further from the orbit of Abbas and his regime in the West Bank, a fact worrying some diplomats.
“They have contradictory agendas,” said a diplomatic source, referring to Dahlan and Hamas. “Dahlan wants to get into Gaza because without that he has no seat at the table in his struggle with Abbas. Hamas will make symbolic gestures, but in the end Gaza is all it has and it will not let go of it.”