Palestinian news sources reported earlier this month that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised $300 million to the Gaza-based terrorist organization Hamas. If true, this pledge would cover nearly half of Hamas’s reported $769 million budget next year, and would make Turkey its primary benefactor.
Hamas and Turkish officials deny the report, and Hamas probably won’t submit to an external audit any time soon. But let there be no doubt: Hamas is for sale, thanks to the Iranian nuclear program and the Arab Spring.
In the past year or two, Iranian proxies have fallen on hard times. The U.S. and Europe responded to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions by enacting tranche after tranche of financial sanctions, and Iran is increasingly unable to make good on its pledges. According to the French newspaper Le Figaro, this means hard times for long-time proxy Hezbollah. And despite Hamas’s public statements about increasing its budget by 22 percent in 2012, it’s likely hurting, too. It was widely reported that the group failed to make payroll in Gaza this summer.
The ongoing carnage in Syria is also creating challenges for Hamas. According to the Arabic daily al-Hayat, the group’s external leaders are fleeing Damascus.
Assuming Hamas’s Iranian and Syrian support is ending, this will mark the fourth shift in the group’s sponsorship since its inception in 1987. But right now, it’s not clear that any regional actor is ready to fill the void.
Egypt, Tunisia, and Qatar have all reportedly considered hosting Hamas’s external headquarters, but each has a generally risk-averse foreign policy, under which the terrorist group would be an undue liability. Despite Egypt’s recent warming of ties with the terror group, thanks in large part to the policies of the popular Muslim Brotherhood, the military is not likely prepared to risk its lucrative military-to-military relationship with Washington. Even Qatar, long known to bankroll Hamas activities, has stated that it will only commit to hosting a few individuals (not the group itself). Indeed, the tiny state has no desire to jeopardize the U.S. military base there, which insulates it from the threat of Iran.
The Saudis, as they try to scrub their image as terror funders, are likely also out of the picture. The 9/11 attacks put them on the defensive, but it was ultimately a series of homegrown terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004 that prompted them to curtail their funding, forcing Hamas to seek the patronage of Iran.
With Iran stepping back, could Turkey step in? From publicly clashing with Israeli president Shimon Peres over Israel’s Hamas policy at Davos in 2009 to sponsoring the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010, Erdogan has become a champion of the Hamas cause.
In recent years, the Turkish government has provided nominal assistance to Hamas in Gaza through a series of charities. Hamas reportedly now operates on Turkish soil, meaning Ankara is already a patron. And Hamas recently announced that leader Ismail Haniyeh plans to visit Turkey soon.
Such a visit would present an opportunity for Turkey to seal the deal with Hamas. And given Washington’s willingness to contract its Syria policy out to the Turks, it’s natural to wonder whether the Obama administration is considering a repeat performance here.
In the end, however, Turkish patronage of Hamas is unlikely. Hamas would destroy whatever remains of its relationship with Iran by moving into regional rival Turkey’s orbit. For its part, Ankara would likely view a larger investment in a terror group as carrying too much risk and not enough reward.
Hamas now seems to understand the risks it carries. This explains, in part, why the group sought to unload captured Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit, who had become as much of a burden as he was a chip to cash in for a thousand jailed Palestinians. And while they should be taken with a grain of salt, recent reports now indicate that Hamas is even considering nonviolence. Though, it’s hard to ignore that without Iranian weapons flowing, violence simply will be harder to sustain.
All along, Hamas’s tactics have shifted with its funding. As a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hamas’s attacks were rudimentary. During the Saudi era of patronage in the mid to late 1990s, they were marked by suicide bombings. Under Iranian influence, over the last decade, the group has fired torrents of rockets, turned its arms against rival Palestinian factions, and amassed a sophisticated arsenal.
Hamas’s next strategy may hinge on its new donors, and its new headquarters. Thanks to their growing isolation, Iran and Syria appear less likely to maintain their current roles. Most Middle East states are unwilling to step up, thanks to a wave of destabilizing protest movements. This is leverage for Washington and Jerusalem. If Hamas remains financially hobbled and homeless, after 24 years of violence, the terror group may have little choice but to bend.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury and the author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008).