Hamas is holding meetings with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second-most active Palestinian Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip, to discuss the idea of merging the two factions, sources on both sides revealed last week. According to PIJ spokesman Daud Shihab, the two had previously attempted to unite, but those efforts failed. This time around is the first that the movements are discussing their potential merger publicly.
Little has been said by Hamas on what merging with PIJ would mean for its unity agreement with Fatah signed last May, or its stance on firing rockets at Israel from Gaza — for which Hamas frequently blames the PIJ. Talks of merging, however, signals a toughening of Hamas’s stance on Israel at a time when some analysts argue that Hamas is becoming more moderate in light of the Arab uprisings and nearby Muslim Brotherhood victories.
Hamas militants marking the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead at the end of December.
Over the weekend, Hamas officially announced that its politburo chief, Khaled Mashaal, will not run for re-election to his post. According to reports, Mashaal is the one within Hamas pursuing reconciliation talks with Fatah and even supporting an end of violence against Israel — both plans said to be encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gaza Strip leadership, however, has expressed its opposition to non-violence and sources close to it say the leaders also oppose Mashaal’s reconciliation with Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas.
Internal Hamas issues aside, there’s another reason why the terrorist movement may be courting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Iran. Tehran financially supports the PIJ, and Hamas may be fearful of Iranian influence in Gaza, especially in light of Iran cutting its assistance to Hamas in recent months as Hamas refuses to back Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in his struggle to maintain power.
The Middle East’s movements and political parties have decisions to make as the region transforms in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Hamas is no different. At this point, signs point to a centralizing of the Hamas government inside Gaza and perhaps even a hardening of its policies vis-a-vis Israel.