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July 21, 2006
Hamas Politicians Powerless In Gaza

According to a New York Times report this morning, the political wing of Hamas lost control of their terrorist wing after pursuing politics, and now no one except Khaled Mashaal in Damascus can control the Hamas bombthrowers. This paints a different picture than the common perception, and shows that political engagement with either Hamas or Fatah likely will produce no results at all:

Despite its links to the Palestinian government, Palestinian and Israeli analysts say, the Qassam Brigades does not take orders from the governing leaders of Hamas. This is why, according to many accounts, the Hamas-led government itself was surprised by the Qassam Brigades’ attack against the Israeli military post in June.

“They lost their position as leaders of Hamas when they joined the government,” said Abu Muhammad, a Qassam Brigades field commander in Jabaliya. “New leaders were named in the movement, and they are more senior than the government leaders, even Haniya,” he said, referring to the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya.

Giora Eiland, a former director of Israel’s national security council and a retired major general who led an investigation into the June 25 raid, agreed. “Recently there was the illusion that Hamas, while not a perfect partner, was at least a group that could implement decisions,” he said. “But it has become apparent that the political leadership of Hamas is much less influential than Khaled Meshal and leaders of the military wing.” Mr. Meshal is the chairman of Hamas’s political bureau and lives in exile in Damascus, Syria.

The Qassam Brigades is the Palestinians’ largest and best organized militant group but it is not the only militia operating in the area under Palestinian control. At least six other armed groups field soldiers to fight Israel or, when there are no Israelis to fight — as was the case for nine months after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year — to fight among themselves.

The current crisis seems to have pushed the militias to join ranks. Several of the militia members said the groups organized a “joint operations room” when Israel began threatening to invade Gaza two or three weeks ago. By all accounts the operations room is more virtual than real, but spokesmen for three of the groups insisted that senior political and military leaders of the seven militias now communicated regularly to plan actions.

The union of competing terrorist groups in Gaza during the Israeli incursion should surprise no one, and certainly won't shock the Israelis. The groups act in concert much of the time in any case, especially Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. The latter escapes mention in the Times article for some reason, despite its impact on Gaza and the war; they fired many of the rockets after Israel left Gaza months ago. The terrorists may not have had a "joint operations room" before now, but their leadership consulted and cooperated with each other as long as Israel remained in the field.

The Times makes that point as well. These groups find unity of purpose whenever Israel enters Gaza. However, none of them have the capability to put their weapons down to settle differences between themselves when Israel returns home. Instead, the terrorists revert to form and begin killing each other. Small wonder, then, that the Israelis cannot negotiate with the Palestinians -- they're incapable of negotiating internally, let alone externally.

However, the greater point is that the commonly-accepted Palestinian political leadership turns out to be a string of empty suits, at least as far as their influence over the fighting. Craig Smith makes it clear that Ismail Haniyeh and his fellow politicians lost credibility with the al-Qassam crowd the moment they stood for election. The terrorists have stopped responding to their leadership and instead follow Khaled Mashaal and the traditional no-negotiation terrorist leadership in Damascus.

The Israelis warned of this when Hamas raided Israel and abducted Gilad Shalit. Although they continue to hold Haniyeh responsible as the elected representative of the Palestinians, they know that Haniyeh has little real power to exercise in Gaza, as does Mahmoud Abbas for somewhat different reasons. Negotiating with Haniyeh is less than pointless -- it's self-defeating. The more Haniyeh actually negotiates, the less these terrorists will follow him, and Haniyeh knows this as well.

Israel has to do something about Mashaal and the Damascus branch of Hamas. Either they have to somehow find a way to engage Mashaal, which is so impossible as to be laughable, or they have to take him and his organization out. Under the circumstances on the ground, the Israelis will never get peace through negotiation, and global efforts to reach a stable peace based on co-existence are doomed to fail. The Israelis have to target the true terrorist leadership of Hamas or they will have to conduct ethnic cleansing in Gaza and the West Bank that no one will accept.

Mashaal is the key. If the world wants peace in the Middle East, it has to start by pressuring Damascus to end its association with Hamas and Hezbollah.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 21, 2006 6:52 AM

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