Ten days ago a massive explosion shook the Burj al-Shemali Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the Mediterranean port of Tyre, in Lebanon.
The blast, which killed at least one person, was blamed on Israel but it reflected a power struggle within the Palestinian militant movement Hamas that has implications for the entire Middle East. The source, according to Israeli intelligence, was a large store of weapons and rockets hidden by Hamas under a mosque in the city, about a dozen miles north of the Israeli border.
Hamas leaders claimed that there was no weapons stash and suggested that the explosion had been caused by an electrical fault which blew up oxygen canisters. However, few in Lebanon had any doubt that the incident was the result of an Israeli sabotage operation targeting Hamas’s supply of rockets, which are manufactured locally with Iranian guidance.
The explosion and its aftermath shed light on a secret rift, reported for the first time here, within the group’s leadership. On one side are the radicals, convinced that the organisation’s future is as a military proxy of the Shia regime in Iran; on the other are those who reject that vision and are striving instead to win back the patronage of more moderate Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have cut Hamas off from any financial support, and Egypt, which has forced Hamas to relinquish its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
“The moderate Arab regimes have been concerned for years by the growing intimacy between Hamas and the Iranian axis,” a western intelligence official said. “Such a partnership could have major implications for the region.”
Hamas was founded in 1987 in Gaza by Palestinian Islamists who were influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement. It has been in opposition ever since to the mainstream, more secular-nationalist Palestinian movements and has opposed any accommodation with Israel. Most western governments have designated it as a terrorist organisation.
The day after the blast in Tyre, at a funeral of a Hamas operative killed in the explosion, gunfire broke out between Hamas members and the rival Palestinian movement Fatah, which is trying to prevent Hamas from taking control of the refugee camps in Lebanon. Three more people were killed.
It was the latest of several blows for Hamas this year. It earned a brief period of popularity among Palestinians in May by firing thousands of rockets into Israel while the Israeli air force pummelled Gaza, but is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy after being rejected by most of its former patrons in the Arab world.
Its fundraising operations among Muslim communities across the world have been squeezed owing to clandestine operations by western intelligence agencies and pressure put on banks to deny facilities to any organisation seen as a front to the militants.
Hamas has dual financial systems. One maintains its local government in the Gaza Strip and helps to build its military apparatus there, which is financed by taxes, funds from the Palestinian Authority and international aid. The second is based outside Gaza and funds its regional operations, including in the occupied West Bank, and is aimed at acquiring weapons for its fighters in Gaza and financing research and development of rockets.
This is financed partly by Iran, and partly from an international network of front organisations that collect charitable contributions in mosques and Muslim communities around the world, as well as from investments in real estate and businesses in Muslim countries. These donations are ostensibly for destitute Palestinians but, according to the US government, are funnelled into funding Hamas.
The decision of the British government last month to designate Hamas’s political wing as a terrorist organisation (the military wing has long been designated as such) will cause more financial problems and intensify the power struggle within the group.
Khaled Mashal, 65, former chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, now heads the movement’s operations outside the Palestinian territories. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 Mashal, who once survived an assassination attempt by Israeli agents in Jordan, has led a policy of breaking away from Iranian influence. According to western intelligence sources, he has been trying instead to rebuild Hamas’s relations with the Sunni-Arab regimes.
To do this, he wants to make it clear that Hamas is not part of the pro- Iranian regional axis that includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, some of the Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.
However, Mashal’s rival and successor as politburo chairman, Ismail Haniyeh, 59, has pursued a policy of rapprochement with the Iranians, who refuse even to meet Mashal. Haniyeh has formed an “Office of Islamic and Arab Relations” aimed at bypassing Mashal, who has not been invited to several high-level meetings with the likes of President Erdogan in Turkey.
One of the motives behind Hamas’s decision in May to launch the rockets against Israel which ignited the 12-day war was the desire of Hamas leaders in Gaza, who are aligned with Haniyeh, to prove to the Iranians that they are a “good investment” when it comes to fighting Israel.
Mashal, by contrast, has argued that Hamas needs to focus on diplomacy rather than violence if it eventually wants to take over the Palestinian national movement. Hamas’s leadership still seems to be of two minds. In recent weeks its representatives have been in Cairo negotiating a possible long-term truce with Israel, even as it tries to re-establish an operational presence in the West Bank, parts of which are dominated by its political rival, Fatah, and which remains under Israeli military occupation. Two weeks ago Israeli forces uncovered what they said was a terrorist network of Hamas operatives who had been stockpiling explosives to be used against Israeli civilian targets — financed by the faction which favours closer ties with Iran.