Splits in Hamas and a ‘Bi-Unilateral’ Ceasefire

18 01 2009

During an email exchange with my colleague Mark Perry at Conflicts Forum, I asked him about the incessant rumors and claims by the Israeli government that the leadership of Hamas has suddenly split along the conveniently familiar lines of “moderates” and “radicals.” According to numerous reports in the Israeli press (dutifully dispersed across the globe), the Hamas leaders in Gaza have become uncharacteristically humbled by the newly-scorched earth around them. And as a result, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza have blamed their equivalents in Damascus for refusing to renew the ceasefire in December and again for refusing Israel’s ceasefire offers this past week.

As usual, Mark Perry puts rumors like these to bed with a healthy dose of logic and insider information, as he is known for his expertise on and relationships with Hamas’ leaders in Gaza and Damascus. So why, I asked, is he the only voice insisting that Hamas is battered but hardly divided? Essentially, because the Israeli government is playing us for fools, he says. (Hyperlinks added by me).

The reason people don’t believe me is because they believe what is printed in the Israeli press. That is to say, no one seems to ask Hamas, the primary source of my material, for their position. What is interesting about this is that reporters and analysts on the telephone with me talking about the differences in “the Gaza leadership” and the “Damascus leadership” of Hamas. They tell me that the Hamas leadership in Gaza represents the moderate wing of the party and that Khalid Meshaal represents the “radical” wing of the party.

If that is true, I ask, why did Israel invade Gaza — why didn’t they try to kill Meshaal and negotiate with the “moderate” wing of the party? And if that is true, why do Israelis (like Mark Regev) describe the Hamas leadership in Gaza as nihilists? The head of the political/military bureau of Hamas is Khalid Meshaal, who has been on the telephone constantly with the senior leadership in Gaza telling them to take more practical steps with Israel.

Are there divisions in the leadership of Hamas? Certainly there are. They have disagreements, it’s not the politburo of the communist party. There are differences and debates in the Democratic Party also. Does that mean there is a split?

Israeli officials would like us to believe that they really know what they’re talking about when it comes to Hamas. In fact, they don’t have a clue. And so they repeat what they did in the 1980s: they told the world that the Tunis leadership of the PLO represented the terrorist wing of the organization, while the insiders were more moderate. It was bullshit: the inside people were much more radical — as you might expect if you live under an occupation. The Tunis leadership as it turned out was moderate: and Israel made a deal with them.

Let us suppose for just one moment that Israel is right — the moderates rule in Gaza. Let’s take it as a given — even though it is not true. What do you suppose the leadership in Gaza thinks now? Does Israel think they are even more moderate? Was the late great Said Sayyam a moderate — in comparison to say, Khalid Meshaal, Mohamed Nasser, Usamah Hamdan, or Mohammad Nizzal? Do we now, as a result of Israel’s line about a split in Hamas, suppose that their own reports that the Gaza leadership had been taken over by radicals is false, and that their new report is true?
There is one truth about a lot of media reports on Hamas in Israel. The truth is that the media gets their information from Ehud Barak and Yuval Diskin. They are fools. Their intelligence services, highly respected by the US public, are dismissed by intelligence service people here [in the US]. And for good reason.
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On a different note, it is still unclear if the ‘bi-unilateral’ ceasefire will hold, but if Jerusalem is actually right where it wants to be (having secured vapid promises from Washington to help allies in the region crack down on smuggling), then it doesn’t seem like much has changed, nor that much was even supposed to change. All the rhetoric, tactics and strategy emanating from of Jerusalem over the last three weeks seemed to point to something much more resolute than a unilateral ceasefire. It seemed obvious that Israel had had enough with all things ‘unilateral’, like the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, which Jerusalem now condemns as a terribly weak decision.

Equally bizarre, Jerusalem’s effort–detailed by Mark–to play Hamas’ leaders and their mediators off of each other seemed to demonstrate that Israel hoped to force its enemy into making painful concessions at the negotiating table, as is frequently the custom in violent conflicts. And even if Jerusalem didn’t want to “legitimize” Hamas with negotiations, Israel seemed likely to use the conflict to bind Egypt to…well, anything. Even officials in Cairo were caught off guard by Israel’s sudden indifference to securing (even the facade of) a short-term “lull” in violence. After all, if “enough” really “is enough,” why are we seeing a resignation in Jerusalem to Hamas’ “nihilism” and the status quo? To drive the point home, the head of Shin Bet has conceded that Hamas will be rearmed in just a few months.

The answer, remarkably, is that the Israeli government is playing its own population as much as the rest of us. Losing 10 Israeli soldiers just so Jerusalem could ‘make a statement’ seems a bit pointless–though, admittedly, the statement contains more than 1300 Palestinian footnotes. But why, if Israel has now re-established its deterrence, would Jerusalem feel so hopelessly impotent as to resign to the previous state of affairs, minus a few Hamas lieutenants? With this outcome, Israel is left only with the knowledge that when Hamas wants to fire rockets/mortars in the future, the militant group will expect Israel to unleash hell in response. And if Hamas attacks anyways in three months, because the blockade is still in place? What then? How will Jerusalem re-explain this latest operation, or the next one?
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