Is Hamas trying to establish a new Fatah armed wing?

The Gaza-based group said that its members held general elections and elected Salem Thabet as “commander-in-chief” of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

 A young boy carrying a Hamas flag walks past Palestinian women gathered as they wait for the funeral of a young Palestinian girl, outside the family's home in the Qalandiya Refugee camp in the West Bank, on December 18, 2015.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
A young boy carrying a Hamas flag walks past Palestinian women gathered as they wait for the funeral of a young Palestinian girl, outside the family's home in the Qalandiya Refugee camp in the West Bank, on December 18, 2015.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

In a surprise move, the armed wing of Fatah in the Gaza Strip, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, announced on Friday that it has elected a new commander-in-chief, drawing sharp criticism from the group’s members in the West Bank.

Fatah activists claimed that the announcement was part of an attempt by Hamas to control the brigades and drive a wedge between its members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Other activists said that they did not rule out the possibility that deposed Fatah operative Mohammed Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates and is considered an archrival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was behind the move.

Dahlan, a former PA security commander, is known to have many supporters in the Gaza Strip, where he was born and raised. He moved to the Gulf state in 2011 after a quarrel with Abbas.

Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO, is headed by Abbas. After Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it allowed some Fatah-affiliated armed groups, including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), to continue operating there. Hamas has also allowed Dahlan loyalists to operate freely in the Gaza Strip.

Zakariya Zubeidi, then-leader of the al-Aqsa martyrs brigades looks on during a demonstration supporting Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank city of Jenin, February 10, 2005 (credit: REUTERS/SAEED DAHLAN)Zakariya Zubeidi, then-leader of the al-Aqsa martyrs brigades looks on during a demonstration supporting Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank city of Jenin, February 10, 2005 (credit: REUTERS/SAEED DAHLAN)

In the West Bank, the group has hundreds of members, especially in the areas of Jenin and Nablus. Although they are affiliated with Fatah, these members have often challenged the faction’s political leadership in the West Bank and refused to hand over their weapons to the PA security forces.

The Gaza-based group said in a statement that its members held general elections and elected Salem Thabet as AMB “commander-in-chief.”

 The elections, the first of their kind, were held under the name of Daoud Zubeidi of Jenin Refugee Camp, who was recently killed during clashes with the IDF.

He was the brother of Zakaria Zubeidi, the brigades’ commander who is in an Israeli prison. Zakaria is also a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

The election of Thabet surprised AMB members in the West Bank, who denied any knowledge of the elections.

“There were no elections and no one was elected as commander-in-chief of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades,” sources close to the group in the West Bank told the Jerusalem Palestinian daily Al-Quds.

The sources said that the elections that reportedly took place in Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip did not include any representatives of the brigades in the West Bank or other parts of the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave.

Abu Thaer, a spokesperson for the AMB in the West Bank, also denied any knowledge of, or connection to, the elections in the Gaza Strip.

He said that the reported elections were part of a “calculated and systematic conspiracy against Fatah and its military wing.”

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin said in a separate statement that Zakaria Zubeidi was still commander-in-chief of the group. “Those who held elections in the Gaza Strip represent only themselves,” the group argued. “We don’t belong to any agenda, and any elections held under the auspices of Hamas do not represent anyone.”

The Zubeidi family said on Saturday that they were surprised to see that the Gaza-based group had used the name of their son, Daoud Zubeidi, in the elections.

“We, the family of the martyr Daoud Zubeidi and the prisoner Zakaria Zubeidi, declare that we have no connection to the groups that carry the name of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Gaza Strip, which held suspicious elections,” the family said in a statement. “This is the first time ever that we hear about public elections for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.”