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(photo credit: AP [file])
The violent Gaza confrontation between Hamas and Fatah that occurred after the July 25 explosion of a car carrying Hamas activists has brought about a significant strengthening of Hamas's control of the Strip and an almost total elimination of Fatah's presence there.
After Hamas's June 2007 takeover of Gaza, the Islamic movement allowed Fatah to continue its local activities. Fatah leaders were able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza, officials working for PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued to operate in Gaza, and Fatah's organizational frameworks continued to function. Among the reasons for this were Hamas's reluctance to burn all its bridges with the PA, and the fact that Muhammad Dahlan's rivals within Fatah cooperated with Hamas in its takeover.
The assassination of five senior members of its military wing presented Hamas with the opportunity to wipe out Fatah's presence in the Strip. It is safe to assume that Hamas decided on this objective long ago, because all attempts at dialogue with Fatah had failed. The PA under Abbas and in cooperation with Israel is engaged in an ongoing effort to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in the West bank, and Fatah operatives in the Strip continued to challenge Hamas, in part through firing rockets into Israel to demonstrate that Hamas control is weak.
HAMAS HAS now banned Fatah activity in the Strip. Hundreds of Fatah members have been arrested, including the entire cadre of senior leaders, and Hamas has seized all Fatah assets. The confrontation peaked with the clash between Hamas and the Hilles clan in the Seja'eya neighborhood of Gaza City. Ahmed Hilles had served as Fatah's director-general in Gaza and is Dahlan's biggest rival. He headed the group of Fatah operatives which cooperated with Hamas, but this did not help him in the current confrontation. It was important to Hamas to break the only locus of Fatah power left in the Strip.
An interesting aspect of Hamas's actions, though it did not attract much attention, was its efforts to consolidate power by dealing with other power centers. The most prominent among these were the Durmush clan in the Sabra neighborhood, which used to operate under the name "Army of Islam," and the Ahmed Abu-Reish Brigades, a militia of the Abu-Reish clan active in the southern part of the Strip and a major player in the tunnel/smuggling industry. This clan suffered a heavy blow when dozens of members were arrested and disarmed. In addition, Hamas closed down the Popular Front's radio station, the only opposition media left in Gaza.
In Israel, attention focused on the photographs of wounded and destitute Fatah members fleeing into the country, including some involved in recent terrorist attacks. However, this aspect is secondary to the fact that Hamas has now attained full control of the Gaza Strip - a control that is different and much more efficient than Fatah's ever was. In the new situation, it is clear that ceasefire violations will result from Hamas indifference rather than inability.
THIS MEANS that as long as Hamas is interested in continuing, the cease fire will likely be upheld. By the same token, Hamas will also be able to fulfill any understanding it might reach with Israel or other parties such as Egypt and the international community. This may have important implications for the Gaza-Egypt border. The containment of the Abu-Reish clan strengthens Hamas's control of all that takes place along the Egyptian border. It will be possible to take advantage of this to arrive at understandings with Hamas if it receives something in return, such as an opening of the Rafiah crossing.
The sole challenge remaining to Hamas's uncontested control is Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There are two possible scenarios here: In one, the organization will learn the lessons of recent events and stand down; in the other, the organization will find itself clashing with Hamas, whereupon Hamas will force it to surrender. Secret Fatah cells still operating in Gaza pose no significant challenges.
THESE EVENTS all indicate that it will only be possible to bring down the Hamas government via military takeover. As a result, the separation from the West Bank becomes even more pronounced. Developments in Gaza strengthened the determination of the PA and Israel to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The PA's security apparatus went on high alert because of concerns that Hamas would retaliate, and PA forces stepped up arrests of Hamas operatives. Similarly, there were efforts to prevent Islamic demonstrations and marches, and preachers were arrested.
Will these developments affect the chances of securing the release of Gilad Schalit? Hamas's increased self-confidence might make its negotiating posture more rigid; on the other hand, it will also reduce Israel's willingness to soften its stance. Therefore, the chances for a deal in the near future are not good.
Hamas's nearly complete takeover of Gaza gives Israel better tools to manage the conflict because now the movement bears full responsibility for everything that happens there. This allows Israel to arrive at stable understandings if it is so inclined. But if the basic premise is that the Hamas government must be brought down, the ability to realize this has been severely damaged, and the sole remaining option is re-occupation - a course that would certainly incur a steep price.
The writer is a former deputy national security adviser and director of the IDF's Strategic Planning Division. Reprinted with permission of INSS at Tel Aviv University.
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