For Hamas, the war is in Gaza, but Jerusalem is the prize

Mahmoud Illean/AP
A banner depicting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is on display as Muslims gather for Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, May 13, 2021. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

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Jerusalem, a focal point of the Palestinian struggle, holds significance for the wider Arab and Muslim world as home to one of Islam’s three holy sites. So when Hamas escalated a crisis in Jerusalem that saw Palestinians there clashing with Israeli police and settlers into a war of rockets and airstrikes, it was also seizing on a way to reverse its political fortunes.

Despite the high human cost and physical destruction of the Gaza war, analysts say Hamas is building an image as the defender of Jerusalem and expanding its support base beyond the Gaza Strip. And it’s rendering its rival, Fatah, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mere spectators who are increasingly politically irrelevant.

Why We Wrote This

For the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, war with Israel offered an opportunity to claim the mantle of Palestinian defenders of Jerusalem. It’s a political victory, but with a cost.

For the first time in many years, Hamas is using its rockets for a non-Gaza related issue, Jerusalem, says Khaled al-Hroub, a Hamas expert and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Northwestern University/Qatar, in an email interview.  

“Symbolically, nationally, and religiously, such a connection is massive,” he says. “Hamas is coming out of its Gaza cocoon to say, ‘I speak in the name of the Palestinians, and I’m the defender of the most sensitive issue of all, Jerusalem.’”

When Hamas escalated a crisis in Jerusalem rooted in forced evictions and an Israeli raid of Al-Aqsa Mosque into a war of missiles, it tapped into Palestinian feelings of helplessness and frustration – and seized a political lifeline.

Since then, the militant Islamist movement has appeared as the only Palestinian faction willing to stand up to Israel, and leapfrogged its rival Fatah, the dominant power in the Palestinian Authority (PA).

As of Monday, the ensuing fighting has killed 200 Palestinians and 10 Israelis and displaced 40,000 Gazans. But it has galvanized much of the Palestinian public behind Hamas, which only a month ago was heading toward elections amid declining popularity, struggling for relevance.

Why We Wrote This

For the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, war with Israel offered an opportunity to claim the mantle of Palestinian defenders of Jerusalem. It’s a political victory, but with a cost.

Despite the high human cost and the physical destruction of Gaza, analysts say Hamas is building an image as the defender of Jerusalem and expanding its support base beyond the Gaza Strip. And it’s rendering Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mere spectators who are increasingly politically irrelevant.

For the first time in many years, Hamas is using its rockets for a non-Gaza related issue, Jerusalem, says Khaled al-Hroub, a Hamas expert and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Northwestern University/Qatar, in an email interview.  

“Symbolically, nationally, and religiously, such a connection is massive,” he says. “Hamas is coming out of its Gaza cocoon to say, ‘I speak in the name of the Palestinians, and I’m the defender of the most sensitive issue of all, Jerusalem.’”

Mr. Abbas delayed this month’s parliamentary elections – the first Palestinian elections in 15 years – in a controversial move April 29. Yet observers say the current crisis offered Hamas another path to build its popularity and credibility among the Palestinian public.

“Hamas is a political party and is certainly more interested in winning elections,” says Mukhaimar Abu Saadah, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Azhar University.

“It seized the opportunity to discredit Mahmoud Abbas after he decided to effectively cancel elections, and to reposition itself as the representative and legitimate defender of the Palestinian people.”

Turnaround in fortunes

Hamas is also leveraging the crisis to end its isolation in the Gaza Strip, which it has ruled since infighting between Hamas and Fatah relegated the movement to the enclave in 2007, and to turn around what had been flagging political fortunes.

It had hoped for a repeat of the 2006 elections, which saw the movement capture a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament, by tapping into frustrations over the PA’s corruption and failure to secure Palestinian rights or statehood.

“Hamas was very much hoping it could change its reality in Gaza through democratic elections that would extend its presence into the West Bank,” says Tareq Baconi, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.  

“With elections delayed, Hamas is now falling back on its tried and tested approach of pressuring Israel to improve access to the Strip and to economically ease the situation in the Gaza Strip.”

Yet, despite its hopes, in recent months Hamas had seen its popularity erode in the West Bank and in Gaza, where frustrations have risen over the lack of services and its repressive rule.

In a March 15-19 poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas came in third with 24.3%. Rival Fatah came in first with 34.3% and “none of the above” was second at 29.6% in the poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

A separate April poll, by the East Jerusalem-based Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, saw Palestinian trust in Hamas dip to 7.3% from 10% the previous year. Even within the Gaza Strip Fatah scored a higher level of trust among respondents than did Hamas – 43.9% to 11.8%.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, in Gaza City, May 17, 2021.

Former PA official and Fatah member Nabil Amr says Hamas has turned the situation around.

He says Hamas successfully filled the leadership void over Jerusalem left by the PA and Fatah, which had frustrated the residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and mostly peaceful protesters on the front lines.

Without a decision from leadership, Fatah members protested on their own the past week, Mr. Amr says, no longer “waiting for orders.”

And Palestinians, who say they feel increasingly under siege by Israeli legal actions, emboldened settlers, and far-right mobs acting largely with impunity, are increasingly turning to Hamas for “protection.” 

Jerusalem-bound?

Jerusalem, a focal point of the Palestinian struggle, holds significance for the wider Arab and Muslim world as home to one of Islam’s three holy sites. It’s also home to a Palestinian population that in recent years has felt abandoned by the Ramallah-based PA.

At a mass rally in Doha, Qatar, Saturday evening, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh stressed the importance of Jerusalem as the reason for the escalations as Israeli warplanes continued to pound Gaza.

“We have repeatedly warned the enemy not to touch Al-Aqsa Mosque which is our qibla, our identity, our belief, and the trigger of our revolutions,” Mr. Haniyeh said. “Resistance is the shortest road to Jerusalem.”

“Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque form the basis of the struggle,” he said.

This focus on Jerusalem, experts say, is designed to put Hamas at the “heart of the Palestinian struggle.”

“It is very important for Hamas to position itself as committed to Jerusalem in order to project itself as a movement for the liberation of all Palestinians,” Mr. Baconi says.

The message is resonating.

Sara, an unemployed resident of East Jerusalem, says she had long been suspicious of the Islamist movement’s conservative ideology, but now supports them.

“We may not agree with them, but they are the only entity in the entire world right now that is coming to our defense,” she says. “By firing rockets at least they are doing something to show there is a repercussion to the stealing of our homes, to violence, and racist laws.”

Khaled Ajawi, a baker from Ramallah who is also unemployed, says he was “revved up” to see Hamas’ rockets in the skies. “They are the only ones who are championing the cause of Al-Aqsa and responding to Israel’s crimes,” he says.

Jenin resident Mariam Abu Baker says she has been won over by Hamas’ armed resistance.

“I can’t wait to get into Jerusalem, without checkpoints or permits. I know that this time we are closer than ever,” Ms. Abu Baker says.

International “recognition”

After spending years on the sidelines and margins of Arab and regional politics, Hamas is once again being courted by Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan in attempts to secure a cease-fire and defuse the crisis – suggesting a legitimacy the movement craves.

Meanwhile, senior Fatah leaders have lamented that not a single Arab leader has called Mr. Abbas as the crisis spread from Jerusalem to Gaza and Israel.

“Most states only deal with Abbas and the PLO because they do not recognize Hamas due to ideological differences or pressure from the Americans,” says an Arab diplomat unauthorized to speak on the record.

“At the end of the day Hamas wants to be treated like a legitimate Palestinian representative or government on the level of the PA and Abbas. Right now, they are being treated at a level even higher than Abbas.”

Hamas is now well positioned for concessions from Egypt, which controls Gaza’s only border with the Arab world and whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has a combative relationship with the group.

In return for a cease-fire and a halt to its rocket fire, Hamas is also looking to receive financial aid from its lone Arab ally, Qatar, which would enable it to pay long-delayed public sector salaries and provide services to increasingly frustrated Gazans.

In theory, that could help Hamas maintain its restored stature.

But Gaza-based writer and political analyst Reham Owda says that while unprecedented Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket fire serve both far-right Israeli and Hamas political aims, it has been “psychologically destructive” for Gaza civilians.

Despite their bold proclamations, she says, neither Hamas nor Israel will emerge as “victors.”

“This war is taking a toll on the civilians like nothing before,” says Mrs. Owda.

“The only true victors or losers are the civilians,” she says, “and they are defeated.”

Yet whether a cease-fire is reached today or weeks from now, many observers agree Hamas can already claim a victory.

“Hamas will emerge with stronger political … standing, internally and regionally. Inside Palestine (and Israel) people and politicians wait to hear what Hamas’ next move will be,” says Professor Hroub, adding that even without a photo-op victory, “Hamas is gaining more ground.”

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