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Hamas is abandoned in divided Mideast support

- - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Islamist militant group Hamas, which has ruled Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since 2007, is coming under increasing fire — not from its avowed enemy Israel, but from former allies, human rights groups and even its own citizens.

Meanwhile, its chief cause — the creation of a Palestinian state — has been almost forgotten amid the post-Arab Spring turmoil in the Middle East, with the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, the deepening civil war in Syria and growing violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq.

"The Middle East is divided as it never has been before along Sunni-Shiite lines. That's the primary conflict that everyone is focused on," said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, referring to Islam's two primary sects.

"Arabs are not talking about Palestine. The West is not talking about Palestine, and that hurts Hamas," Mr. Landis said.

On Tuesday, Syria's state-run TV called Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal an ungrateful traitor for turning his back on Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime has been cracking down on protest for the past 18 months.

Early this year, Mr. Meshaal moved Hamas' headquarters from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in part to respond to Palestinians decrying the ever-mounting death toll in Syria's civil war.

Hamas initially was neutral on Syria's conflict, but it has begun to criticize the Assad regime in recent months as more than 30,000 Syrians have been killed, according to activists' figures.

Hamas, a mostly Sunni organization that advocates resistance against Israel to ensure Palestinian autonomy, had support from the Shiite-dominant regimes in Iran and Syria. The Assad regime is run by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"Hamas believes that only resistance will get Palestinian land returned to it, and Iran, Syria and [Lebanese militant group] Hezbollah became their natural allies," Mr. Landis said.

"Now that Hamas has been forced to abandon Syria and find a new benefactor in the [Persian] Gulf, where they are going to be asked to abandon their resistance stance, [that puts Hamas] in a very difficult position," he added. "They are going through an identity crisis."

The Iranian connection

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday issued a 43-page report documenting Hamas security forces' rampant abuses against Palestinian prisoners, including beatings with metal clubs and rubber hoses, mock executions and arbitrary arrests, the Associated Press reported.

"There is ample evidence that Hamas security services are torturing people in custody with impunity and denying prisoners their rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for the New York-based group. "The Gaza authorities should stop ignoring the abuse and ensure that the justice system respects Palestinians' rights."

The international rights group said it based its report on interviews with Gazans who had been abused, their families and attorneys, as well as a review of case files and court rulings.

Human Rights Watch's report isn't the first to detail Hamas abuses. The Independent Commission for Human Rights last year documented scores of human rights abuses in Gaza.

Since taking power in 2007, Hamas has imposed Islamic, or Shariah, law on Gaza and authorized police to enforce religious laws that include a ban on dancing and a requirement that women wear head scarves called hijabs — regulations similar to those of its erstwhile Shiite backer Iran.

"The relations between [Iran and Hamas] were based on mutual interests, since Iran was providing political and financial support to the Hamas movement in and out of the Gaza Strip," said Nagi Shorab, a political analyst and lecturer at Al Azhar University in Gaza. "Things, however, started to change, especially after Hamas criticized Bashar al Assad."

Observers noted that the Hamas government delayed paying its civil servants and security forces in July and August, and they suspect that Iran has reduced or even halted its funding to the Gazan leadership.

"We paid a very high price for disagreeing with Iran," said Gazi Hamad, Hamas' deputy minister of foreign affairs.

In addition, Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declined an invitation to attend the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Iran in August. Analysts saw that as a sign that the group's relationship with Iran was unraveling -- and not only because of differences over Syria.

"Within Hamas, I think there was initially a great deal of ambivalence about warming up to Iran," said Mr. Shorab. "Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt whose ideological views differ greatly from Shiites."

Sunnis and Shiites differ over the successor to Islam's Prophet Muhammad, the use of religious icons and the proscription of proper attire, among other issues.

Looking toward Egypt

Observers say that Hamas' relationship with Iran has been undermined by Egypt's new leadership — Islamists with close ties to Hamas.

"With the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt, which might be less happy with a close relationship with Iran, I think that Hamas will find it trickier to maintain the relationship [with Iran]," said Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Still, analysts say, Hamas is unlikely to find Egyptian support for armed resistance in the struggle for a Palestinian state because the government in Cairo needs to maintain peace with Israel in order to continue receiving about $1 billion a year in military aid from the United States.

"Although [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi certainly in his instincts is very anti-American, he has to walk a very fine line," Mr. Landis said. "Egypt is very dependent on the United States for its lavish military aid, and it needs peace with Israel. And that means that, although it can lend some rhetorical support to Hamas, it is unlikely to help Hamas win a war against Israel."

Mr. Morsi has spoken of a realignment of U.S.-Egyptian relations since taking office this summer and a renewed commitment to the Palestinian movement.