The War Within Gaza

With a cease-fire holding, a battered Hamas now begins its battle with enemies within for control over the future of the Strip.

Photo by HAZEM BADER / Stringer
Photo by HAZEM BADER / Stringer

HEBRON, West Bank — Muhammad Elias Abu Aysha talks with his hands, punctuating each statement by slamming a fist into his palm. A stocky man with a thick beard just beginning to go white, he walks with a slight limp and appears vaguely put out that he has not yet been arrested by the Israelis, like much of his family. "It’s because I’m not good for anything," he jokes, cracking a small smile — the only one of our visit.

We are standing in the destroyed house of Amer Abu Aysha, one of the alleged Hamas operatives whom Israel has accused of being responsible for the June 12 abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which marked the beginning of the current round of violence. The external wall of the home’s second floor has been blasted away by an explosion; soot from the resulting fire covers the floor and ceiling. The stairs appear to have been destroyed with hammers, as if someone was looking for a hidden compartment, and outside lies a pile of burned mattresses and appliances. Muhammad says it is all the work of Israeli soldiers, who tore the house to pieces looking for evidence of his nephew Amer’s location. The house had been ripped apart during the police’s search for the teens’ killers, but the whereabouts of Amer Abu Aysha and the other suspect, Marwan Qawasmeh, remain unknown.

"Just because [Amer] prays, they claim he is Hamas," Muhammad says. "You should defend your religion. Hamas has been popular since its inception — because it has religion."

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement dominates the West Bank, is a member of the same religion, isn’t he?

"No!" Muhammad waves a finger in the air sharply, and pauses to compose himself. "People are getting killed in Gaza and he’s not going to the United Nations, he’s not doing anything…. Many people are afraid of the PA [Palestinian Authority] even if it says it’s with the resistance. All its statements are deceptions."

Almost two months after the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers, the war in Gaza appears to be nearing its end. A 72-hour Egypt-brokered cease-fire began this morning, as Israel pulled the last of its troops out of the Gaza Strip.

Now comes the spin game: Hamas will no doubt tout its success. It has withstood some Israeli leaders’ calls to eliminate the movement in the Gaza Strip, fired thousands of rockets into Israel, and proved a far deadlier opponent for the Israeli military than in previous conflicts. Its popularity is also surging in the West Bank, a fact admitted by Palestinian leaders with no love for the Islamist movement, and confirmed by public opinion polls.

But the threats facing Hamas are also looming ever larger. The economic destruction in Gaza is estimated at over $4 billion, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that the rehabilitation of the Palestinian territory be linked to Hamas’s demilitarization. It finds itself beset by enemies from all sides: Not only do Israel and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi control the crossings into and out of Gaza, but partisans of Hamas and Fatah — despite frequent pronouncements of Palestinian unity — still nurse a healthy distrust of one another.

Even before the Gaza conflict erupted, the relationship between Hamas and Abbas was growing increasingly strained. The June 2 formation of a unity government, according to a senior Palestinian official involved in brokering the deal, featured several ministers close to Abbas, but not one Hamas representative. In return for this subordinate position, the official said, Hamas expected to achieve the normalization of life in Gaza — an easing of the Israeli economic blockade and an infusion of funds from the Palestinian Authority.

"Abu Mazen broke his promises," the official said, using Abbas’s colloquial name. "He never sent his prime minister to Gaza, and never paid the salaries [of the roughly 40,000 government workers]."

Hamas’s mistrust of Abbas is mirrored by Fatah officials’ hostility toward the Islamist movement. From his office in the city of Nablus, Fatah lawmaker and former spokesman Jamal Tirawi endorsed the current modest demonstrations across the West Bank in support of Gaza — but warned against larger protests, which he said would only serve Israel and Hamas’s foreign patrons.

"Israel wishes to see us proceed in this violent track [large demonstrations in the West Bank]," Tirawi said. "We also are aware of the Qatari-Turkish project, which aims at dividing the Palestinian national dream and creating a state in the Gaza Strip."

Tirawi referred to a supposed plot by former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to cede part of the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, which would have served as a new Palestinian state. The goal of this alleged scheme, which was pushed by anti-Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian media, was to create an Islamist-run state that excluded the West Bank.

"After the failure of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Qataris in keeping Morsi [in power] in Egypt, they’re keen on establishing another Islamic Brotherhood stronghold in the Gaza Strip," Tirawi said.

Such talk may appear to belong to the realm of conspiracy theory but it is a sign of just how deep the mistrust between the two primary Palestinian factions goes. If the reconstruction funds for Gaza are filtered through the Palestinian Authority, Hamas will no doubt fear that the money will be used to bolster Fatah’s position in the territory — a suspicion reinforced by suggestions from former Israeli officials that Abbas’s security forces will be empowered to once again take control of the Gaza Strip.

The war seems to be winding down, but the coming struggle for control of Gaza will be perhaps more important for Hamas’s future. The Islamist movement faces the challenge of re-arming and rebuilding Gaza — all the while arrayed against two hostile countries that control all the crossings into and out of the territory. Hamas has officially made peace with Fatah, its primary Palestinian rival, but the relationship remains plagued by suspicions that each faction seeks to weaken and subjugate the other.

Hamas, however, is not without its friends — even in the West Bank. In Hebron, Ibrahim al-Qawasmeh, a man in his 60s wearing a simple off-white shirt and a bushy beard, walks to his small shop, trailed by his teenage son. He is the brother of Abdullah al-Qawasmeh, a Hamas military commander gunned down in Hebron in 2003, and the uncle of Marwan Qawasmeh, the other alleged Hamas operative named by Israel for his suspected involvement in the murder of the three Israeli teenagers.

Like Abu Aysha, Qawasmeh claims to have no knowledge of his nephew’s involvement in the crime, or his current location. But he insists that Marwan was guided by a hatred of injustice, and a true understanding of Islam — neither of which could be driven out by Israel or what he describes as Hamas’s corrupt Palestinian rivals.

"We are deep-rooted on this land, like the olive trees," he says. "Maybe you can break the branches, but the roots will never be broken. And once these roots find the right environment, they will all grow back and make beautiful trees."

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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