[Marxism] The alienation of Hamas' military wing from governing faction
marvgandall at videotron.ca
Sun Jul 23 15:03:47 MDT 2006
Despite Ties to Hamas, Militants Aren't Following Political Leaders
By CRAIG S. SMITH
New York Times
July 21, 2006
JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza, July 20 - Five men in black hoods emerged from
a dimly lighted street of stark concrete houses and garbage-strewn lots.
With Israeli drones buzzing overhead, they kept the meeting short.
"We ask America to stop supporting the Israeli aggressors," said the leader,
who carried a new Czech-made Kalashnikov rifle while another shouldered a
new Gaza-made rocket-propelled grenade launcher. After 20 minutes, they grew
visibly nervous and disappeared into the shadows.
The men are members of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the well-armed,
highly organized military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement
that now governs the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Members of the militia
led last month's raid in which they killed two Israeli soldiers and captured
another, setting off the current crisis.
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,
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.
"We are more united now than at any time before," said Abu Mujahed,
spokesman for the Salahadin Brigades, the armed wing of another anti-Israeli
movement, the Popular Resistance Committees.
Abu Muhammad, the Jabaliya field commander, said the Qassam Brigades was in
charge of the operations room because it was "the backbone of the
resistance." Nightly operations are mapped out, and a password is agreed
upon for fighters of different factions to identify themselves in the field.
"When two groups meet each other and both are masked, the password
identifies them so we know they are not Israeli agents," Abu Muhammad said
in his sitting room lined with overstuffed armchairs, the only light coming
from a slender taper fixed to the coffee table.
He said scouts were posted on the edges of Gaza and the outskirts of towns
to watch for raids by Israeli forces. "If they see something, they send the
information back up the line to the joint operations room and it broadcasts
it to all the groups," Abu Muhammad said. "Special forces cannot enter Gaza
It is difficult to say how many Palestinians are members of armed groups.
Israeli intelligence officials say there are probably as many as 20,000
hard-core members of the various factions, most of which are in the Gaza
Strip. But including freelancers who join in when the fighting picks up,
intelligence officials say, the militias' forces outnumber the 35,000
members of the Palestinian Authority security forces.
Israeli intelligence officials say the leadership of Hamas, previously split
between Gaza and Syria, consolidated in Damascus after the assassinations of
Hamas's charismatic leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi in
2004. Two months ago, General Eiland said, Hamas military leaders appeared
to gain the upper hand.
According to the accounts of Israeli intelligence officers and senior Hamas
officials, the influence of Hamas leaders in Gaza weakened further after
they joined the Palestinian Authority in the wake of parliamentary elections
early this year.
The Qassam Brigades, which is believed to have received money from Saudi
Arabia until recently and now from Iran, grew in the 1990's as a
counterweight to the Aksa Martyrs Brigades of the Fatah movement, then led
by Yasir Arafat.
Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli Army spokesman, said that in the past few
years Hezbollah had also helped underwrite some Palestinian groups and had
provided technological skills.
To become a member of the Qassam Brigades, Abu Muhammad said, a person must
first join Hamas. The movement accepts only people who demonstrate Islamic
piety, who do not smoke and who pray five times a day, not something that
all young people can manage, he said. Hamas investigates the background and
relations of all prospective members before indoctrinating them into the
culture of strict obedience. Only then can they join the military wing.
Abu Muhammad, now 37, said he joined Hamas during the first intifada in the
late 1980's and became a member of the Qassam Brigades six year ago. "I
started as a common soldier and after three years became a commander," he
said. Like all Qassam members, he gives part of his income to the militia.
As field commander, he distributes arms and ammunition to the men under his
command. The Qassam Brigades smuggles in weapons to the territory when it
can, but it has developed a substantial munitions industry that makes
everything from rockets to antitank mines. "If I need something, I
requisition it," he said.
The Qassam Brigades' members say they do not have any Katyusha rockets, but
they claim to have extended the reach of their Qassams, putting the Israeli
city of Ashkelon and its roughly 100,000 inhabitants within range. Most of
the weapons, including antitank mines, are made in Gaza. The handle of the
group's grenade launchers are stamped "Al Yassin," in honor of their late
Many of the smaller militias now follow the Qassam Brigades' classic cell
structure, in which few people know more than their immediate superior and
subordinates. Abu Muhammad, a short man with wire-rimmed glasses and a
short, dark beard, described the organization from his point of view.
"I'm a field commander and I'm responsible for eight groups of five men
each," he said. "No group knows the others and I don't deal with the
fighters, only the commanders of each of the eight groups."
He said he did not know how many layers were between him and the senior
leadership. But Israeli intelligence officials say that while the
organization is broad, it is not very deep, which is why the army focuses on
targeted assassinations of militia leaders. They say there are only a few
layers between field commanders like Abu Muhammad and the top commander,
Below Mr. Deif there are several regional commanders, including Ahmad
al-Ghandur, the Qassam Brigades commander in Jabaliya and the northern Gaza
Strip. Both Mr. Deif and Mr. Ghandur are believed to have been seriously
wounded in an F-16 missile attack earlier this month. Abu Muhammad is
probably one or two rungs below Mr. Ghandur, the intelligence officials
The Qassam Brigades is well financed; many members carry new weapons and
ammunition vests. Despite the well-equipped Palestinian Authority security
forces in Gaza, the new Hamas government prefers to use a contingent of
Qassam Brigades fighters for protection.
The militia members use radios because they do not trust telephones,
speaking in code for less than 30 seconds at a time to keep the Israelis
from pinpointing their location.
On a visit to a cell arranged for a reporter, Abu Muhammad moves to an
intersection on the edge of town and the masked men appear. The group's
leader, Abu Ahmed, is a thickset man of 44, a carpenter, the father of six
boys and a girl. He has been a member of Hamas for 10 years and joined the
Qassam Brigades four years ago.
Like most of the people in Jabaliya, his family fled their homes around
Ashkelon during the fighting of 1948 that followed the creation of the state
"My family is from Sawafeer," he said, adding bitterly, "The Jews changed
the name to Shafir."
Besides the routine patrols he said the group sometimes had "specific
operations with mines and RPG's against tanks." If fighters plant a mine, he
said, they watch it until it is detonated, or they take it away. He said
they were among the Qassam Brigades fighters who fought back against an
Israeli raid into Jabaliya in October 2004.
They wear masks to hide their identity from possible collaborators in their
midst and from Israeli intelligence in battle, fearing that if they are
identified, they could be assassinated later. Each squad operates in a
well-defined geographic area, usually tied to where its members live.
Shortly after the five men merged back into the night, a sharp explosion
split the air.
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