Caelum Moffatt: Disorder in the Ranks of Hamas?

By Caelum Moffatt

Last Sunday, Hamas government spokesperson, Ghazi Hamad, was alleged to have issued a five page letter in which he criticized and questioned Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in June. The former editor-in-chief of the Hamas-affiliated weekly Al-Risala has denied the letter’s existence in which he ostensibly declared that the events in June, which resulted in the current duopoly of Palestine, was a “serious strategic mistake that burdened the movement more than it can bear”.

Ghazi Hamad had once referred to Gaza in 2006 as “under the yoke of anarchy and the swords of thugs” while Fatah was in control of the Strip. However, four months after their seizure of Gaza, it seems that the Hamas spokesperson has adjudged that they are “isolated” and “besieged” where “people’s suffering has increased”.

Alaa al-Araj, economic adviser to the deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, has supported this opinion stating that the majority of the Gaza population is living on around $2 a day.

In contrast to these comments, Mahmoud Zahar, the co-founder of Hamas has assured doubters that Hamas can run Gaza without difficulty, despite the economic sanctions imposed on the area. Zahar is confident that Hamas has enough money to pay the salaries of Hamas loyalists for a whole year, claiming also that the failure of the November Summit in Annapolis will only strengthen their cause.

Is this the first instance of a divided and confused Hamas structure? Are they starting to feel the reality of their dilemma, the inability to decide their own fate leading potentially to the inevitability of their demise?

In June, after Hamas defeated Fatah in the five day long “war for Gaza”, Hamas presented a united front of cohesion, affirmative in their actions and demonstrating a willingness to face the consequences collectively. Fundamentally, this is what differentiates Hamas from Fatah and could be considered one of the reasons for its success in the 2006 elections. While the secular Fatah party has many stems and divisions, Hamas are ultimately an Islamic resistance group with their underlying political dogma circulating around its member’s adherence to Islam.

Over the last few months the strength of this dogma has been put to the test. Hamas’ 365 km2 stronghold has been almost completely closed off by the Israelis. In the last four months Israel has intermittently stopped electricity flowing into Gaza, has prevented sufficient amounts of aid reaching the Gaza people, controlled or ceased the transfer of cigarettes, cheese, milk, electrical appliances, furniture and even sugar and fruit. Unemployment has rocketed and prices have soared due to scarcity of products. The UN World Food Program [WFP] reports that 1.1 million [75% of the population] are reliant on receiving food assistance from UNRWA and WFP. According to Kirstie Campbell, spokesperson for WFP, Gaza has the highest rate of food assistance in the world.

The economic hardship, caused by such sanctions, is only one problem that Hamas must address as the ruling authority in Gaza. They must further contest with the increasingly negative portrait being painted of them to the international community and by Israeli press. This week witnessed the tragic killing of Mohammed al-Ashqar by Israeli wardens in the Ketziot Detention Center. In response, the Israeli press immediately stated that al-Qassam Brigades [the military wing of Hamas] pledged to punish Israel through their treatment of Gilad Schalit [the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in the summer of 2006]. An al-Qassam spokesperson quickly retorted that “the response to the Israeli oppression of Palestinian prisoners will be painful” was in fact the actual statement made.

As if the situation wasn’t deteriorating and crippling enough, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, along with other senior officials is recommending to Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, that more economic sanctions be implemented on the “hostile territory” in reprisal for their rocket attacks on Israeli land. The sanctions proposed would focus on limiting electricity further and although UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has deemed the move “unfair collective punishment”, it seems to have been approved by Barak who has also not ruled out the possibility of a land invasion to deter rockets from being shot into Israel.

Al-Qassam rockets are short ranged, inaccurate and ineffective, tending to be disruptive rather than devastating. According to B’Tselem, from 2004-2006 14 Israelis were killed from thousands of Qassam rocket attacks. In response, Israel launched a single incursion into Gaza killing 126 Palestinians [73% of which were innocent casualties]. The assault did not prevent the attacks. Although not as direct and swift a policy as an incursion, the economic sanctions could be just as damaging to the Gaza people.

Nevertheless, if Hamas wants to prevent this action and be dealt with seriously, they must attempt to liaise with or control other political resistance fighters in Gaza who persist on firing mortars and rockets into Israel. Just last week, Islamic Jihad’s military wing [al-Quds Brigades] fired rockets and mortars aimed at Sderot, Kisufim and Kfar Aza; the PFLP military wing [Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades] and Fatah’s military wing [al-Aqsa Brigades] fired into Sderot; and the Popular Resistance military wing [An Nasser Addin Brigades] launched into Ashkelon, Sderot and Nahal Oz. These do not include attacks on Israel inflicted by Hamas’ own military wing.

Having yearned for recognition and power for so long, the consequences of this responsibility could be beginning to expose Hamas’ inexperience and their increased uncertainty about the position in which they have placed themselves.

What future direction should Hamas take regarding Gaza? It is this very question that causes confusion and exposes a blatant antithesis between two of Hamas’ founding platforms – political progression and extreme action.

Since its inception in 1987, Hamas has operated under a very clear set of guidelines. The group rejects Israel and subsequently any UN agreement which attests to its existence; demands the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the return of Jerusalem; refuses to stop resisting the occupation; and resolutely demands all Palestinian prisoners be released.

The problem in deciphering Hamas’ intentions now is that one doesn’t know who to take as the authoritative voice.

Deposed Prime Minister Haniyeh, who has never been linked to the Hamas military wing, prefers to secure these measures by dialogue and ceasefire, calling their current stance with Fatah a disagreement “between brothers”. Haniyeh has also referred to Hamas’ control over Gaza as “temporary”.

However, former Foreign Minister and the highly influential Mahmoud Zahar, who is closely connected to al-Qassam and whose youngest brother Yousef [Abu Khaled] is a colonel in the newly formed Executive Police Force, not surprisingly believes that resistance is the key. Zahar scorns any scenario which would involve Hamas giving up Gaza, is vehemently against a ceasefire and has asserted that if there were a strike aimed at Hamas, they would have no problem resuming suicide missions aimed at Israel.

Lastly, there is Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ politburo chief currently in exile in Damascus. Following the assassinations of Hamas co-founders Sheik Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, Meshaal became the most senior figure within Hamas’ political framework. In a rare interview with McClatchy Newspaper in August, Meshaal claimed that Hamas would not apologize to Abbas for their actions in Gaza, they would never recognize Israel and that Palestinians would never stop the Intifada.

Three different perspectives but who has the overriding authority? One would have thought that within the political structure of the party, Meshaal would be recognized as superseding the others. However, he is in Syria and how can one confidently confirm that he calls the shots and delegates orders to those in Gaza, especially to a man as opinionated and connected as Zahar.

What is abundantly clear is that no matter what Zahar may think, Gaza is disintegrating economically, socially and politically. In return for dialogue the President wants an apology for their actions, to restore conditions to the state they were in pre-June and wants their allegiance to his authority and his government in the West Bank. Israel claims it will not speak with Hamas unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to prior UN agreements. None of the above seem like concessions Hamas would agree to imminently not only because Hamas’ political dogma does not accommodate for a moderate element but exterior powers will also not allow Hamas to project or follow a moderate position.

The Palestinian National Conference, organized by Hamas, may be occurring on November 7th in Damascus to counter the Annapolis Summit but what are they hoping to achieve? Mohammed Nazzal of the Hamas Politburo states that it will address the rights of the Palestinian people amid American-Israeli pressures. The Summit in Annapolis has received a barrage of press questioning its relevance and validity but how is the Conference in Damascus going to be anymore productive or have more substance than Annapolis? 
Hamas is not omnipotent – their support in Palestine has dwindled to 30% and falling. Although this Conference may be a good idea in theory, gathering Arabs and Palestinians in one room to decide on the options available, it is not going to change the climate in Gaza. However, with groups as unpredictable as Hamas, it may seem naïve to mistake their quietness for confusion. Hamas has defeated Fatah politically and militarily over the last 18 months, neither of which people expected were even possible. One could surely not underestimate them thrice? Could it be that Hamas has one more surprise contingency plan?

Maybe this idea is fantastical, offering Hamas too much credit when in fact, with their influence as contained as it is, Hamas is probably relying on external results to aid their situation. Without a “grand plan” Israel will “carpe jugulum” [seize the throat] of Hamas until they are forced into submission. Incursions and sanctions will scourge Gaza, legitimized by the rockets which are targeted into Israel. With winter approaching and with limited electricity, dysfunctional hospitals, limited food supplies and high unemployment and inflation, growing discontent will spread among the people of Gaza and the situation will spiral out of control. The irony being that although Hamas has finally cemented their power in Gaza, they will be denied the chance of implementing this authority and to administer the area independently as they will always be affected by staunch external opposition and regulation.

(MIFTAH – – Oct 29, 2007)

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