Moscow's overtures to Hamas: A message to Israel and the US
In recent months, Russian-Israeli ties have been drastically affected by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, triggering a war of words and accusations.
In April Israel condemned Russia's war, calling it a “flagrant violation of the international order”. It also voted for the suspension of Moscow from the United Nations Human Rights Council, prompting Russia to announce it was leaving the forum.
Moscow angrily responded by labelling Israel's statements as ‘anti-Russian attacks’, claiming that Israel is using the invasion of Ukraine to ‘distract’ from its conflict with Palestinians. Moscow also condemned Israel for its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
"The intensification of Russia-Hamas ties could be interpreted as retaliation by Moscow for Tel Aviv's stance towards the war in Ukraine"
"It is also noteworthy that... the longest occupation in the post-war world history is carried out with the tacit connivance of the leading Western countries and the actual support of the United States,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.
Sharply deteriorating relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv finally hit rock bottom after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Italian television that “Hitler had Jewish blood,” after he was asked why Russia was insisting that Ukraine needed to be 'denazified' if the country’s own president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was Jewish.
The accusations continued after Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told Radio Sputnik that ‘Israeli mercenaries’ are fighting in Ukraine side by side with the fighters of the notorious Azov Battalion, which has been accused of harbouring a neo-Nazi ideology.
What is behind Hamas and Moscow's rapprochement?
In May, a senior Hamas delegation visited Russia led by the head of the movement’s international relations office, Moussa Abu Marzouk. Members of the movement’s political bureau, notably Fathi Hammad and Hussam Badran, were also part of the visit.
Hamas sources have said that another delegation will head to Moscow in early June, according to media reports.
The intensification of Russia-Hamas ties could be interpreted as a move by Moscow to boost relations with Israel’s enemies as retaliation for Tel Aviv’s stance towards the war in Ukraine.
Palestinian factions, including Hamas, have also long desired greater engagement with Russia, hoping that Moscow could challenge and break the US’ upper hand over the Palestinian question.
However, one should bear in mind that Russia and Hamas - which Russia does not recognise as a terrorist group - have had a political relationship for many years.
Russia formally accepted Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections (which the rest of the Middle East Quartet did not), and both sides have met regularly since then - most often at the level of ministers or deputy foreign ministers.
"Relations with Hamas serve as a tool in Middle Eastern policy and an additional source of pressure on Israel"
Besides meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in May, Hamas members also for the first time reportedly met with controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who often visits his paramilitary units on the frontline in Ukraine.
While the recent visit can be read as part of a more constant political dialogue, the current international context is key.
Moscow reaching out to Hamas is in line with their "grave consequences" threats to all nations that seek to interfere in Russia's ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, John Rugaber, an analyst at Encyclopaedia Geopolitica and former US Army Captain, told The New Arab.
“It is also a response to growing US wishes for Israel to supply more equipment to Ukraine in the way of advanced weaponry [rather] than just the helmets and bulletproof vests Israel has sent for aid workers,” he told The New Arab.
A week prior to the Hamas visit in May, Israel had sent the head of its political-military bureau to Ramstein AFB to discuss sending more weapons to Ukraine, Rugaber said, and talks were also held between the Pentagon and Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
Moreover, Russia is also trying to maintain contacts with all willing international partners in the face of increasing isolation.
Its recent diplomatic moves, according to Rugaber, may also be seen as encouraging dependent nations to purchase gas and oil in rubles and working with OPEC nations like Saudi Arabia to trade oil in local currencies instead of in dollars, which is a direct threat to the US.
Hamas, for its part, is also facing internal pressures in terms of a lack of progress on key issues with Israel, such as prisoner releases and an extended ceasefire. Regionally, unfavourable changes in terms of Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel and normalisation with Tel Aviv among Arab states have left it more isolated.
Michał Wojnarowicz, an expert on Israel and Palestine and security issues in the Middle East at the Polish Institute for International Affairs, says it was a predictable decision on Hamas’ behalf to declare neutrality regarding the war in Ukraine.
As for Russia, “relations with Hamas serve as a tool in Middle Eastern policy and an additional source of pressure on Israel,” Wojnarowicz told The New Arab.
Message to Israel
The Kremlin’s overtures to Hamas also send a clear message to Tel Aviv (and Washington), that Moscow has the capabilities to cause serious trouble to both parties.
Wojnarowicz observes that Russia has made good use of the deteriorating US-Palestinian relationship under Trump to strengthen itself as a "neutral" player in the region. And Israel, according to him, “has limited ability to counter this as long as it wants to maintain a joint mechanism with Russia that allows Israeli attacks in Syria against Iranian targets”.
Some observers even speculate whether the Russian-Hamas rapprochement may lead to open and substantial support, and even military assistance, which could cause serious security headaches for Israel.
But, at the moment, this scenario is very unlikely, according to Wojnarowicz, as Russia has many channels through local actors in Syria and Iran to provide such support without direct involvement, which could result in additional sanctions from the West.
Moreover, a greater Russian alignment with Hamas would also force a change in Israeli policy. While Israel is still trying to carefully balance relations with Russia due to the situation in Syria, any evidence of military assistance to Hamas or weapons sales would, in Wojnarowicz’s words, “force Israel to revise their current political line regarding the supply of offensive weapons to Ukraine”.
"Hamas has long desired greater engagement with Russia, hoping that Moscow could challenge and break the US' upper hand over the Palestinian question"
New proxy wars are inevitable
In the context of an emerging new Cold War between Russia and the US, it is most likely that both powers will confront each other in ways which could bring greater insecurity to the Middle East.
It is probable, according to Rugaber, that Russian-US tensions will continue to spill out into other proxy wars after Ukraine is settled. There was the proxy war in Syria, for example, which predated the war in Ukraine and is still not completely settled (the US is still occupying Syrian territory).
There is also a Great Game 2.0 going on in Africa between the US, China, and Russia over the continent’s natural resources, as well as over Venezuela, which might be a source of competition should the US seek to intervene again or if Russia were to become involved in America’s ‘backyard’, as Moscow perceived the US to do in Ukraine.
Since the US shifted away from the Global War on Terror in its National Defense Strategies to combating Russian and Chinese influence in the world, Rugaber observes that “it makes continued proxy wars with Russia all but inevitable”.
So, while it is probable that Russia will never forget or forgive US military support for the war in Ukraine, attacks against US forces or infrastructure probably will not occur outside of Ukrainian borders. “To do so, even if indirectly, risks nuclear war, which is too high of a price to pay for a revenge strike or two against US targets,” Rugaber says.
On the other hand, Wojnarowicz recalls that most Middle Eastern countries have taken a very cautious stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine, which is beneficial for Russia.
He also believes that if Russia would provide weapons to armed groups and start to actively destabilise the Middle East, it would certainly be opposed by regional states.
Nevertheless, “indirect support, undermining the US position at the political level, fueling anti-American sentiment with propaganda tools - this is a very likely scenario”.
Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence