Hamas and Hezbollah: Weathering the Syrian Storm
By: Qassem Qassem
Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The popular bases of Hamas and Hezbollah appear increasingly at odds over the Syrian crisis, but officials in both parties say their alliance is too strong to be undermined by their disagreement.
Hezbollah and Hamas met face to face for the first time in the winter of 1992 when Israel expelled most of the Palestinian group’s top-ranking members to Marj al-Zuhour in South Lebanon.
Hezbollah communicated daily with the Hamas leadership and became familiar with “our ideas and our beliefs first hand on the ground,” says one prominent Hamas official. The Palestinian Islamist movement cemented its relationship with the Lebanese resistance during that period. They were brought together by a common enemy and an Islamic orientation.
Yet, no matter the extent of the camaraderie between the two parties, differences of opinion on certain issues have sometimes strained relations between them. The most recent difference of opinion concerned Hamas’s position regarding what is happening in Syria. Over the past few months, the movement has largely left Syria.
Hamas’s withdrawal from Syria and its position regarding what is taking place there has strained its relationship with Hezbollah and its supporters in Lebanon, especially after a speech by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at Al-Azhar in Cairo where the congregation repeated the slogan, “No to Iran. No to Hezbollah. Syria, Syria is Islamic.”
A prominent Hamas official says, “We have nothing to do with the slogans that were repeated. These slogans were not repeated inside the mosque but outside, and the people there were not from our constituency...The slogans surprised Haniyeh, and this can be understood from the expression on his face when he was at the pulpit,” he adds.
The official continued by saying, “When [Haniyeh] heard these phrases he saluted the Syrian people as a way to stop these chants, and changed the course of his speech to focus on Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem because they are what bring Arabs together.”
The Hamas source says that “Haniyeh did not accept these slogans, and they embarrassed us in front of our allies.” Members of the party considered the chants a personal message aimed directly at Haniyeh, who had just returned from a fruitful visit to Iran.
Hamas staff seem to be able to justify anything. Before this incident, the Palestinian police in Gaza had shut down a gathering of Shia commemorating the death of Imam Hussein. At the time, the interior ministry in Gaza released a statement saying they “respect all doctrines including the Shia wherever they are in the world.” They dismissed the incident by saying that the group “was planning criminal acts.”
Hezbollah has been eyeing these events with great caution. A prominent Hamas official says that they promptly reached out to Hezbollah and explained the incident.
“We told them that what the media had been reporting was inflated and the group was not attacked in the hospital. Rather, all that happened was that their statements were taken there,” adding that “the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior had received a tip about loud voices coming from one of the houses so the police went to put an end to the argument.”
However, the main problem for Hamas is among Hezbollah’s base, which has expressed its resentment of the position Hamas has adopted regarding the Syrian regime. Despite this, the chord of friendship between the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah has not been cut.
Leader of Hamas in Lebanon Ali Baraka remains in the front row at Hezbollah events, where cameras cut away to his face every time the phrase “Palestinian resistance” is mentioned in the speeches of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. But during Hezbollah’s last commemoration of its martyred leaders, Hamas members were scarce.
Yet, a prominent Hamas officials says, “the face of brother Ali appeared on the screen more than that of Nasrallah.” Hamas saw this as a message from Hezbollah confirming that “the resistance movements, no matter how divided they are by politics, are nonetheless united by the gun.”
According to a Hamas official, the temperature of the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah has gone from “tepid” to “hot.” It is natural for both parties to deny any recent coldness and affirm the “brotherhood” between them as well as their continued coordination.
“The coordination between [us] remains at a high level, something we can’t mention in the media,” he says, alluding to military cooperation between the two groups.
One of the attendees of joint meetings says that there are some differences of opinion regarding recent events and on some of the Arab revolutions, but on “the basis of respecting differences in perspective within what is called polite disagreement.” He adds that “we work together on what we agree upon, and we forgive each other on what we disagree upon.”
According to a member of Hamas, what is taking place in Syria has two dimensions: “a domestic dimension embodied in the legitimate popular demands acknowledged by the regime, and another dimension which involves foreign exploitation of these demands and mismanagement by the regime in treating the internal Syria crisis.”
He says that “Hezbollah differs with us by its reference to a foreign conspiracy on the internal dimension and considers what is happening in Syria to be a conspiracy.”
Currently, the priority, according to Hamas, is fortifying the Syrian domestic front and treating the crisis so that the regime and the people can stand against the foreign conspiracy.
A member of the movement explains Hamas’ position on what is happening in Syria, saying that “Hezbollah’s base has misunderstood our position…we are not interfering in Syria’s domestic affairs and we do not announce positions in support of this group or against that group, or in support of the people against the regime.”
Hamas’ official position, the source says, calls for “a political solution to the Syrian crisis that will realize the Syrian people’s demands for freedom, justice, and reform, and will preserve Syria’s unity, security, and stability, so that Syria will remain a state that resists Israel.”
The Hamas official says that it is plain to see that “we have never attacked the Syrian regime or its president, so we are loyal to those who have stood by us when the whole world abandoned us, and we have said that we support the demands of the Syrian people and nobody can be against the people.”
He continues by saying, “Hamas cannot be an exact copy of its allies...so the movement believes that there are some legitimate demands acknowledged by the regime that must be addressed and we must give priority to stopping the bloodshed on both sides in Syria. Therefore, we differentiate between legitimate demands and foreign conspiracies against Syria due to its pro-resistance position in Palestine and Lebanon.”
The Hamas leader understands the movement’s relative loss of popularity among Hezbollah supporters because of its stance and says, “Hezbollah has also lost some of its popularity in our circles because of what is happening in Syria, but we are carrying out internal organizational measures to explain to our base the nature of the relationship with our Hezbollah brothers.”
A Hezbollah member says that Hamas “is going through exceptional and delicate circumstances that require our understanding of the movement’s position and its considerations.”
“There is a climate of uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion surrounding Hamas’ policy among our base,” he says, adding, “we are dealing with it through internal measures.” He confirms Hezbollah’s commitment to prevent a “negative climate” between Hamas and Hezbollah.
No matter how much the brothers disagree about policy, the common denominators between them are too big for them to be divided. One Hamas member says, “Look at what is happening in Gaza and the way the resistance is launching its rockets and you will you know the nature of our relationship with Hezbollah.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.