Hamas rally 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The kidnapping earlier this week of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit has revealed the nature of the secret power struggle that has been raging among the top brass of Hamas political leadership ever since the Islamic movement won the parliamentary election last January.
Today it is evident that there are two major forces in Hamas - one headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the second by Damascus-based Khaled Mashaal. Haniyeh represents the relatively moderate and pragmatic camp in Hamas, whereas Mashaal is viewed as a hardliner who is taking Hamas toward further extremism.
In many ways, the dispute within Hamas resembles the historic conflict between the 'old guard' and the 'young guard' in the rival Fatah party. But while the power struggle in Fatah has been over money and power, the feud in Hamas is over the movement's future political and military strategy.
Haniyeh and his aides insist they had nothing to do with the attack on the IDF post near the southern border with the Gaza Strip.
In private conversations with Fatah leaders, they revealed that the attack was carried out on instructions from the Hamas leadership in Syria and Lebanon. Although Haniyeh's men did not mention names, the Fatah leaders were quick to hold Mashaal responsible.
Ever since he entered office, Haniyeh has been working hard to persuade the international community that there is no reason to fear Hamas's presence in power. In a series of interviews with the Israeli and foreign media, he even went as far as talking about the possibility of accepting a long-term truce with Israel.
Unlike Mashaal, Haniyeh has also been keen on maintaining good ties with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and most of the Fatah leadership - a fact that has angered Mashaal and other Hamas leaders abroad. Despite the tensions between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah party, Haniyeh has refrained from criticizing the PA president. Fatah, for its part, has also avoided attacking Haniyeh in person.
Two months ago, when Mashaal openly accused Abbas and Fatah leadership of conspiring with Israel and the US to bring down the Hamas government, Haniyeh was said to be unhappy with the accusations. He reportedly told Fatah officials that he totally rejected Mashaal's allegations.
Mashaal's remarks drew sharp criticism from Fatah, whose leaders accused him of serving as a puppet in the hands of Syria and Iran. Still, the thousands of Fatah supporters who took to the streets to protest Mashaal's accusations stopped short of blaming Haniyeh for any wrongdoing.
Last month, following Abbas's decision to hold a referendum on a controversial document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Haniyeh endorsed a conciliatory approach while Mashaal categorically dismissed the document as a plot designed to topple the Hamas government.
Mashaal reportedly instructed Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to do their utmost to foil Abbas's planned referendum. But Mashaal's orders have since fallen on deaf ears, especially after Haniyeh preferred to negotiate a compromise with Abbas over the prisoners' document.
Haniyeh's strategy over the past few months has been to avoid resuming terror attacks on Israel. That's mainly because he wants to succeed in government and to prove to the world that Hamas is capable of running the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian public. To the dismay of Mashaal, Haniyeh has even stated in public that he was not opposed to Abbas's desire to resume peace talks with Israel.
Sunday's attack on the IDF post and the kidnapping of Shalit have placed Haniyeh in a very difficult situation, particularly since his movement has taken credit for it.
Sources close to Haniyeh said on Tuesday that the Hamas gunmen who carried out the attack did not consult with the Hamas political leadership in the Gaza Strip prior to the operation.
According to the sources, the attack was clearly aimed at embarrassing Haniyeh and thwarting his attempt to reach an agreement with Abbas over the prisoners' document. They noted that the attack was carried out against a backdrop of reports that Abbas and Haniyeh were closer than ever to signing an agreement that would also have seen the establishment of a new government consisting of independent figures and technocrats.
If anything, the attack also shows that Mashaal has control over certain elements in Hamas's armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam. It remains now to be seen how Mashaal and his lieutenants will react to Tuesday's news that Haniyeh and Abbas had finally reached an agreement over the document.
Hamas officials in Ramallah and Gaza City said they did not rule out the possibility that the agreement would further escalate the power struggle between the two Hamas camps.