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High hopes, limited influence A brief history of Russia’s relationship with Hamas
In the first few months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as Russian-Israeli relations grew increasingly strained, it appeared as though ties between Moscow and Hamas were improving. In May 2022, a senior Hamas delegation traveled to Russia and met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. While the U.S., the E.U., and Israel have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, its representatives have often met with Russian leaders. Russia’s actual influence over Hamas, however, remains minimal.
This article was first published in Russian in May 2021. In light of the events unfolding in Israel and Palestine, Meduza in English has translated the text.
The Soviet Union was friendly with Palestinian fighters. Were these fighters part of Hamas?
No. Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) was formed in 1987 as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, though they broke ties in 2017. Prior to the formation of Hamas, the USSR supported fighters who employed similar methods and held the same goal: destroying the state of Israel.
Prior to Perestroika, the Soviet Union’s attitude toward conflicts in the Middle East was simple: Israel was occupying all of Palestine, and Moscow supported Israel’s opponents in exile, most notably Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). For the USSR, it was important that left-wing politics dominated the PLO.
The Soviet Union and Israel had no formal diplomatic ties after 1967. Instead, they maintained only unofficial ties, primarily through Yevgeny Primakov, a former Middle Eastern correspondent for the newspaper Pravda. Primakov had friendly relations with Arafat and supervised future Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in graduate school. In the 1980s, Primakov’s role in politics increased: he became an advisor to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and partially determined the country’s foreign policy. Primarkov long argued that Palestinian fighters must be condemned for acts of terror without labeling them terrorists since they act in response to “Israel’s armed hostilities against Palestine’s civilians.”
In 1991, Primakov was appointed head of Soviet foreign intelligence and then led its Russian successor agency. This coincided with Israel and the PLO concluding a peace agreement in 1993, which saw the two sides recognize each other’s existence and, at least on paper, renounce the use of violence. Russia, represented by Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, also participated in the peace process, though its role was largely symbolic.
Afterward, when the PLO agreed to abandon its goal of destroying Israel, the Palestinian movement split into the moderate Fatah party and many radical organizations, the strongest of which would later become Hamas.
Fatah vs. Hamas
Fatah, the PLO’s largest and most influential faction, officially renounced terrorism in 1993 following reconciliation with Israel. Today, Fatah is no longer considered a terrorist organization — not even in Israel.
In contrast to Fatah, Hamas is a radical Islamic organization that consistently professes armed struggle against Israel, whose right to exist it rejects. This position continues to enjoy the support of a large number of Palestinians. In 2005, Hamas founded a political party. A year later, it beat the Fatah government by four percent in Palestinian elections.
After its defeat, Fatah refused to enter into a coalition with Hamas, and Hamas party leader Ismail Haniyeh became the government’s new leader. This resulted in an immediate international embargo and the introduction of sanctions against the new Palestinian government. President Abbas subsequently declared a state of emergency, dismissed Haniyeh’s national unity government, and appointed an emergency government, leading to violent clashes that left the Gaza Strip under the control of Hamas. Since the split between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank areas under Palestinian control have been an exclusive part of the Palestinian National Authority, which Fatah still controls.
Over the past 16 years, various sides, including Russia, the U.S., and Egypt, have tried to mediate between the warring Palestinian factions. Meanwhile, Hamas has continued its war against Israel, focusing on the intimidation of civilians in order to force Israel to compromise.
Russia’s attitude toward Hamas after its 2006 election victory
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Moscow drastically improved relations with Israel. Relations with Hamas, however, have varied over time. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Russia regularly condemned terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas, calling the group Islamic fanatics and extremists. In August 2004, when Sergey Lavrov became Russia’s foreign affairs minister, the ministry released a statement condemning a suicide attack committed by Hamas that killed 17 people. “Moscow strongly condemns the new barbaric assault by extremists. We are convinced that no political or other goals can be achieved with the help of violence and terror,” read the statement. Russia still did not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization, however.
Following Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the group’s relations with Russia improved dramatically. On January 31, during his annual press conference, President Putin noted when answering a question from an Al-Jazeera correspondent that Russia has never recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization. Putin did, however, stipulate that this did not mean that Russia “endorse[s] and support[s] everything Hamas does,” but rather that Hamas should be treated as a real political force since it became a legitimately elected authority.
“There are a number of Russian citizens — or more accurately, female citizens — living in Gaza,” says Marianna Belenkaya, a journalist and expert on Arab affairs who edits the Telegram channel Falafelnaya. “That’s why Russian diplomats travel from Ramallah to Gaza — to provide them with consular and other assistance.” According to Belenkaya, such visits are impossible without contact with Hamas. What’s more, there is a Kalinka Russian cultural center in Gaza that’s sponsored by Rossotrudnichestvo (a division of Russia’s Foreign Ministry) and led by Primakov’s grandson. (Russia also maintains official relations with the Palestinian National Authority.)
Since 2006, senior members of the Hamas leadership have participated in regular meetings with Russia’s Foreign Ministry. In March 2006, the head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Mashal, made his first official visit to Moscow, not long after winning the Palestinian elections. In an interview with the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, he said, “We were always convinced that the day would come when we would calmly be able to travel to the world’s capitals. And [we] were confident that this would happen after the victory of Hamas. But none of us knew exactly when it would happen. And even more so, that it would happen relatively quickly.” In 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with Khaled Mashal. But relations soon soured.
Why did relations sour?
In 2011, Hamas showed its support for the armed opposition in Syria, which had incited the Syrian revolution. At the time, a significant portion of Hamas’ fighters were based in Syria (where they hid from Israeli special forces). That’s why the organization directly participated in the Syrian revolution, supporting the opposition. Previously, the Syrian regime and Iran were the most important allies of Hamas, supplying weapons to Gaza (including Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile complexes). Hamas used these weapons to build an arsenal consisting of thousands of rockets, which it used to target Israeli cities.
In Syria, Hamas fighters opposed Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization supported by Iran. At the same time, Israel secretly supported the Syrian opposition, which, in effect, meant being on the same side as Hamas. In this conflict, Russia chose to support Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s incumbent president. Since 2015, Russian troops have been deployed to Syria, becoming allies of Iran and Hezbollah.
This ultimately caused Russia’s influence in Gaza to wane. However, Moscow’s official position toward Hamas has not changed. For example, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Russia doesn’t consider Hamas terrorists because they are an “integral part of Palestinian society,” given that they have representatives in the national legislative assembly and the national unity government.
What is Russia’s role in the conflict?
Russia is involved in negotiations in the Middle East on two main fronts, argues Marianna Belenkaya, and Moscow still hopes to become a mediator in negotiations between the various warring Palestinian factions.
In 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump proposed his Middle East peace plan, attempting to mediate between Israel and several Arab states. But both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were extremely angry with the plan, which they considered unacceptably pro-Israeli. Given these circumstances, Palestinian politicians hoped to see Moscow as a potential counterweight that could change the negotiating agenda. The Israeli authorities secretly disapproved of Russia’s contact with Hamas, journalist and political analyst Nadav Eyal told Meduza. But Israeli officials did not publicly criticize Moscow because the two countries share many common interests. According to Eyal, Israel also sees that Russia holds no real influence over the Hamas leadership and is instead just trying to involve itself in Middle Eastern politics on all sides.
While the Israeli authorities need an intermediary to communicate with Hamas, Egypt — not Russia — usually plays this role. This is largely due to Egypt sharing the only other border with the Gaza Strip, meaning that Hamas leaders travel through Egypt when meeting with Russia. All goods destined for Gaza, including smuggled weapons, pass through the Egypt-Gaza border. Although talks and meetings regularly take place in Moscow (in March 2020, Sergey Lavrov met with Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nahhal), key agreements do not involve Russia, such as the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process in 2017, which was signed in Cairo.
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