CAIRO — Now that they are the uncontested rulers of the lawless Gaza Strip, Hamas leaders have a clear set of priorities in sight.
"We have a lot of clan violence in Gaza and we are working to stop families from fighting each other over past things," Abu Obieda, the commander of Izzidine Qassam Brigades, the elite and secretive military arm of Hamas, said in a unique interview with The Observer published on Sunday, June 24.
Hamas fighters recently battled militants of Al-Astel family, one of Gaza’s infamous ruling clans, in the narrow alleys of Khan Younis in the south of the Gaza Strip.
The clan is known for drug smuggling and support of Fatah.
There are six big clans involved in racketeering, car-thefts, smuggling, kidnapping and murder in Gaza.
Some security analysts estimate as many as 400,000 weapons are stashed away in the impoverished coastal strip – enough to arm one in every three people.
Guns used to be openly put for sale twice a week on the fringes of a secondhand car market in Gaza City.
While the Executive Force – the blue-uniformed paramilitary troops on the streets – conduct most of the policing and security operations, Qassam Brigades have other more pressing issues.
Hamas has asked all resistance groups to halt rocket attacks into Israel for now and its top military commander is personally negotiating with Islamic Jihad, which fires the most rockets.
"To shoot rockets into Israel is not a goal of Hamas; it is not a real target," said Abu Obieda, who spends very little time in one place for fear of Israeli assassination.
"But when Israel attacks us, it is our only way to respond. We do not hope to kill people in Israel with these rockets but it’s a necessary response," he added.
"We all understand that we need to wait until provoked. Maybe one week, maybe one month, but they will come and provoke us. But for now, we need to fix the economy, provide the security for the people of Gaza and the foreigners who want to come here, and fix the problems with the families. We can’t do anything before we do that."
With many files to handle, Hamas is still determined to help secure the release of the abducted BBC correspondent.
"But we also are working very hard for the release of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist," said Abu Obieda.
The BBC Gaza correspondent, who spent his 100th day in captivity last week, is being held by militants from the powerful Dagmoush clan, which is centered on northern Gaza and has a long-running blood feud with Hamas.
Executive Force and Qassam fighters are surrounding the section of Gaza controlled by the family.
Abu Obieda insists that the BBC is limiting his options.
"I can have Alan Johnston out in two hours, if my men go in and take him by force," he said.
"But several times, the BBC has called me and asked that I not attack and let the talks continue. So we will negotiate because we want no harm to come to this man."
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, accused unidentified senior officials in the Palestinian Authority Sunday of sabotaging the release of BBC reporter.
"There have been contacts though special channels from Ramallah with the kidnappers that we have been able to intercept to prevent the release," he said in a statement.
"Some people are trying to block this issue despite the fact that we were on the point of resolving it."
Johnston, an experienced reporter, was the only Western journalist permanently based in the increasingly lawless territory when he was seized on March 12 in an operation claimed by the self-styled Army of Islam.
His plight has sparked rallies and messages of support from all over the world and an online petition calling for his release has been signed by more than 170,000 people.
Interviewed in the ornate office of a former security chief in one of the one Fatah-controlled security compounds, the top Hamas military leader is not happy with what happened in Gaza.
"We are not happy," he said Abu Obieda.
"I am not proud to have defeated and killed the men of Fatah. This is a shame on all Palestinians because we love each other."
He insisted that Fatah militants were not the enemy.
"They are just soldiers like any of us here in this room. The decisions they had to follow came from outside of Gaza: from Ramallah, from the Israelis, from America. I do not hate the men of Fatah; they are our brothers."
Abu Obieda said the problem was a corrupt security regime led by Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan.
He was surprised by the speed of the victory.
"I expected it to take one month. That is what we planned for and trained for. But then at the beginning, all the Fatah commanders escaped their compounds in ambulances and left for Egypt. They left their men to die. Who could do that?"
Leaders of Fatah’s so-called "reformist trend" in the Gaza Strip have called for "trying" fellow members whom they held responsible for the collapse; singling out MP Dahlan, a senior national security advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas.
Fatah leader Hossam Edwan warned last week that Dahlan would stoke Hamas-Fatah tensions in the West Bank and instigate people against Hamas.
Former Fatah official Bilal al-Hassan told IslamOnline.net in a recent interview that Dahlan is largely to blame for the Gaza crisis as he used his strong influence and Abbas’s blind confidence to thwart any reconciliation bid between Fatah and Hamas.
Abu Obieda sees the infighting as a failure by the Palestinian people on both sides of the political divide.
"….forced us to this point, but we are not ready to do it again. People need help; they need jobs, money and police. They don\’t need fighting between brothers."
(IslamOnline.net + Newspapers – June 24, 2007)