Unsurprisingly, the Hamas leadership – both in Gaza and Damascus, and less so in
the West Bank – has greeted the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks
with a flood of contrarian rhetoric.
Characterizing the process as a
“sellout” of the Palestinian “cause,” the movement argues that President Mahmoud
Abbas lacks the necessary “mandate” to represent his people. Hamas leader Khaled
Mashaal went so far as to call Abbas “a zero,” amid accusations of “treason” and
The group has also issued fiery denunciations of the growing
cooperation between Palestinian Authority security agencies and their Israeli
counterparts. According to Hamas spokesmen, only ongoing “resistance” and
uncompromising adherence to the “basic tenets” of Palestinian struggle will pave
the way forward.
Rhetoric aside, how will Hamas respond on the ground as
the renewed US-sponsored negotiations unfold? Will it attempt to thwart the
talks through violence right from the start, or will it limit the
counteroffensive to the political domain? Several revealing indicators suggest
that the group’s top echelons have already held intense closed-door debates on
these questions, shaped to some degree by prodding from Iran and
Syria.Between Gaza and Damascus
In deliberating its next moves, Hamas
was compelled to change some elements of its typical decisionmaking
Egypt’s refusal to allow the group’s leaders to leave Gaza
complicated matters by preventing face-to-face Political Bureau meetings in
Damascus. The group also apparently had to curtail its usual procedure of
seeking advice from prominent Hamas activists in jail.
therefore split between Gaza and Damascus, with the West Bank leadership – now
headed by Omar Abd al-Razeq from Salfit – largely left out of the discussions.
Even so, the deliberations and resulting developments provide a fair forecast of
the group’s course on a number of fronts.On direct negotiations
will no doubt avoid declaring an open campaign to subvert the talks – as Gaza
chief Mahmoud Zahar put it, “You do not need to foil what is doomed to fail
This statement drew numerous negative comments from
rank-and-file Hamas members and some of Mashaal’s subordinates in Damascus,
reflecting the heightened tensions between the two leaders. In private, Zahar
has accused Mashaal of “trying to design himself as a new Arafat.”
setting aside internal rifts and the group’s insistence that Abbas has no
legitimacy to negotiate, Hamas consistently maintains that the outcome of the
talks will soon demonstrate that pursuing any agreement with Israel is futile.
Echoing this belief, Izzadin Kassam military commander Ahmed Jabari – who often
allies with Mashaal – said in his Ramadan message that “the enemy does not lower
its head except to the sword and bullets.”
Accordingly, Hamas communiqués
and remarks following the recent West Bank shootings carefully emphasized that
they were not intended to derail the talks, but were simply a reflection of the
group’s traditional resistance doctrine.On military activity
31 and September 1 and 2 shootings show that Hamas has decided to make a full
effort toward resuming attacks in the West Bank. Over the past three years, the
group eschewed major attacks there, preferring to absorb blows and portray
itself as the victim of unlawful persecution rather than be perceived as
provoking retaliation. Meanwhile, most of its terrorist operatives in the West
Bank were arrested through joint Israeli-PA efforts, seemingly leaving the group
with no surviving operational network there.
Yet Hamas is now encouraging
dormant cells to take action, and attempts are under way to send new operatives
from abroad – unknown to Israeli, PA, or Jordanian security services – in order
to establish new terrorist infrastructure in the territory. The group has also
continued its efforts to send Gaza operatives through the Rafah tunnels to Sinai
with the goal of infiltrating the West Bank. Hamas seems to believe that a wave
of successful terrorist attacks will create unbearable strain between Israel and
the PA, casting a dark shadow over the negotiations.
Yet it is important
to bear in mind that, according to well-placed sources within Hamas, the group
is not planning a reversion to suicide bombings. Past internal decisions to
refrain from such attacks apparently remain in force, along with the policy of
restricting operations to the Palestinian territories and Israel. For example,
when missiles were lobbed from Sinai against Eilat and Aqaba on August 3, Hamas
told Egyptian intelligence that the strike was an “unauthorized endeavor” by a
handful of activists.On the de facto ceasefire in Gaza
Although Hamas is
clearly inclined to maintain the relative calm in Gaza, it has allowed –
temporarily, one would assume – a noticeable spike in militant activity. The
past two weeks have seen an increase in the number of locally upgraded Kassam
missiles (with a payload of 10 kilograms compared to three in the past) and
mortar shells fired into Israel, up to 10 strikes daily. Many of these attacks
are carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by several small Salafi armed
groups, and even by ex- Fatah militiamen recently converted to a new unit
operating under Hamas command.
Israel’s response has so far been
restricted to a few air raids against the tunnels and Hamas workshops, resulting
in minimal casualties. If Hamas manages to mount a series of drive-by shootings
and ambushes in the West Bank, however, pressure will grow to complement this
with a second front involving increased strikes from Gaza.Attitudes
toward the PA
Hamas has now instructed its members to actively resist any
arrests by PA security forces, with firearms whenever available.
Bank members have yet to heed this new order, however; despite PA arrests
targeting some 400 activists in the past three weeks, they are unlikely to seek
violent clashes with the PA. Indeed, many Hamas leaders in the West Bank are
complaining that Mashaal and his Gaza followers are unaware of the real
conditions on the ground and issue “impossible” directives without consulting
the local leadership.
Several of these figures have demonstrated their
displeasure by holding warm, public meetings with Abbas and participating in
joint demonstrations with Fatah against Israel’s West Bank security
At a time when Hamas leaders elsewhere are stepping up criticism
of the PA and urging confrontation, the West Bank leadership is heading in the
opposite direction, despite – or perhaps because of – the constant pressure the
PA has brought to bear against their network of institutions.Iran and
Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria were quick to applaud the
renewal of terrorist attacks in the West Bank, a move that lent support to their
favorites within Hamas: Izzadin Kassam commander Jabari and his deputy, Marwan
Issa. At the same time, both countries helped mediate a secret understanding
between Hamas and Islamic Jihad to prevent further deterioration in their
relations, which had previously erupted into small armed clashes in
Encouraged by these state sponsors, 13 Palestinian factions
combined in Damascus to deny Abbas the right to act on behalf of the PLO – since
Oslo, the official Palestinian interlocutor with Israel. Both countries had a
role in convincing the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of
Palestine and the ex-communist People’s Party to withhold support for the
decision to engage in direct negotiations. This maneuvering deprived Abbas of
any backing outside Fatah, at a time when many Fatah officials avoided
supporting him in public or, as in the case of party leader Muhammad Dahlan,
expressed doubts regarding the wisdom of the move.
reflect the ongoing struggle between its different factions regarding the
movement’s future course.
This debate was eloquently exposed by Ahmed
Yousef, a former US resident and current director-general of the Gaza
government’s Foreign Ministry, who asked whether Hamas aspires to end up a
Palestinian version of the Taliban or a copy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and
Development Party. In other words, does the group want to be an armed militia
that imposes its interpretation of Islam and political worldview by force, or a
civilian party playing by the rules of a pluralistic democracy? Risk of
Most of Hamas’s West Bank leaders have privately criticized the
military wing and the way it is running Gaza. They advocate quiet reconciliation
with Abbas rather than confrontation and question the effectiveness of “armed
struggle” at this juncture.
Similar attitudes can be found among some of
the group’s veteran leaders in Gaza and even among a handful of
entourage in Damascus.
For now, though, Mashaal, the military chiefs in
Gaza, and their civilian political allies have managed to keep the upper
As a result, further deterioration in PA-Hamas relations may be
accompanied by a
new phase of terrorist attacks, unless the Israeli and PA intelligence
can find a way to abort them.
Ehud Yaari is an Israel-based Lafer
International Fellow with The Washington Institute.
This article is republished by permission of The Washington Institute.