David Miller
The Media Line
April 10, 2011 - 12:00am

Hamas, the Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip, is sending out contradictory messages about its willingness to enter into a ceasefire with Israel, amid signs of a yawning rift between its military and political wings.

"We are interested in calm, but we want the Israeli military to stop its operations," Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, said in an interview on Israel Radio on Sunday. But the night before Abu-Ubaida, a spokesman for the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, showed no intention of stepping down the violence along the border.

"We are continuing our Jihad and revolution alongside all world revolutionaries until the liberation of Palestine and the expulsion of the invaders," he told Hamas' Palestinian Information Center.

In fact, it appeared the military wing was calling the shots, with 10 rockets or mortar shells landing inside Israeli territory on Sunday. That brought the total number of projectiles reaching Israel to more than 130 since last Thursday when fighting was sparked by the launching of a Hamas anti-tank missile at an Israeli bus, critically wounding a 16-year-old boy.

"Al-Qassam is controlling the situation in Gaza," a senior Gaza businessman told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. He said Khaled Mishal, the head of Hamas' Syrian bureau, was paying the salaries of the Al-Qassam fighters in Gaza and could therefore ignore the wishes of the group’s civilian leadership.

Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, when it expelled its political partner Fatah in a violent coup. But Hamas itself is divided. While Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah is officially the leader of the Hamas-controlled government, the organization’s military wing takes it orders from officials led by Mishal, who is based in Damascus.

Further complicating the situation, Hamas policies are believed to be influenced by Iran, which supplies money and arms to the organization.

Internal Hamas politics are often a matter of speculation. But Palestinians said they believed that the organization has sought to ratchet up tensions with Israel in order to distract the Palestinian street, which has been pressing Hamas and Fatah in recent weeks to end their split and form a national unity government.

Even before the fighting, Hamas was struggling with public opinion. A March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 67% of Gazans surveyed supported demonstrations in the Gaza Strip that would seek to change the regime. By a margin of more than two to one, Palestinians reported they wanted Hamas and Fatah to end their split more than bringing an end to the Israeli occupation.

On March 15, weeks before the escalation began, mass protests in Gaza calling for national unity were met with a severe crackdown by Hamas, leaving one dead. Haniyah, in apparent appeal to popular opinion, invited Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, to Gaza for talks. Abbas, to Hamas’ surprise, accepted.

The invitation probably had the effect of exacerbating tensions between Haniyah and Ahmad Al-Jaabari, head of the Al-Qassam armed wing, said Ayman Shaheen, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Shaheen said it was in the best interest of Hamas to stop the missile launching, a move that would please both the population of Gaza and Israel.

"Israel is interested in maintaining the political divide between Hamas and Fatah, so it isn’t likely to launch a full-scale attack to uproot Hamas completely," Shaheen told The Media Line. “Al-Jaabari is very close to Khaled Mishal in Syria," "It’s also possible that some elements in Hamas want to escalate the situation because of what is going on in Syria right now."

With the Middle East in turmoil, experts speculated external issues could be playing a role in the escalation of fighting between Gaza and Israel. Syria, which is Iran’s chief ally in the region as well as the headquarters for Hamas’ external wing, has been wracked by mass protests for the past 10 weeks. At least 65 people were killed in Syria over the weekend by security forces, local human rights organizations reported.

"Reconciliation would entail elections, and Hamas doesn't want that," the businessman told The Media Line. "People in Gaza are accusing Hamas of killing the Palestinian people for nothing in return. They are all asking 'why?'"

The casualty count might explain why Hamas’ civilian wing wants to bring an end to the fighting so quickly. About 19 Gazans have been killed and 70 injured in four days of fighting with Israel.

The equation is further complicated by the plethora of armed groups in the Gaza enclave.

On Sunday afternoon the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza, announced it would stop firing at Israel as long as "the enemy" holds its fire. Abu-Ahmad, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement posted on the organization's website that the Brigades maintained the right to respond to any Israeli aggression, but decided to cease fire in order to prevent a wide-scale Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip.

But the Palestinian Ma’an news agency said previously unknown groups were taking responsibility for attacks. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades - Marwan Haddad division in the Levant claimed responsibility Sunday for firing a Grad missile at the Israeli city of Ashkelon and two homemade projectiles at a military base.

Another group, identifying itself as the Al-Tawhid and Al-Jihad - Beit Al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for launching a homemade projectile at the Nahal Oz military base. Meanwhile, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, the Al-Nasser Salahadin Brigades, said its fighters fired three mortar shells at the Israeli community of Nahal Oz.

The divisions inside Hamas and Gaza complicated Israel’s position, which most analysts said, was in favor of ending the fighting as quickly as possible.

In Israel, too, there was a division of opinion among the country’s leaders, although analysts said the ones with decision-making authority preferred to bring a quick end to the fighting. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu threatened Hamas with a "much harsher response" if firing from Gaza continued. Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for a "harsher and less routine response." But even Yishai said he preferred large-scale air strikes rather than a land incursion similar to the Cast Lead Israel launched in December 2008.

But Defense Minister Ehud Barak was more conciliatory in comments made to Israel Radio on Sunday morning, even as Hamas rockets continued to fall near Israeli towns.

"If they stop firing on our communities, we will stop firing. If they stop firing in general, it will be quiet, it will be good," Barak said. "Restraint is also a form of strength."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017