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In Gaza, rise of Hamas military wing complicates reconciliation with Fatah

GAZA CITY, GAZA —Abu Khaled has been a member of Hamas’s military wing for 11 years, and he looks the part.

GAZA CITY, GAZA —Abu Khaled has been a member of Hamas’s military wing for 11 years, and he looks the part. His thick beard, black clothes, and serious face bear witness to his rise through the ranks to become one of the leaders of the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, near Israel’s border.

But at this moment, as he softly sings along with popular Arabic pop singer Elissa in a deserted Gaza restaurant, it’s hard to believe he fought in the fierce 2007 battle that expelled Fatah, Hamas’s secular rival, from Gaza.

When asked about reconciliation with Fatah, however, he snaps back into the role of tough militant leader.

“There is no reconciliation,” he says sharply. “How can I reconcile with someone who killed my brother?”

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Most Gazans are not optimistic that Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel – will end the divide with Fatah, which dominates the internationally backed Palestinian Authority (PA) in charge of the West Bank.

But they want such reconciliation, because it would not only improve their standard of living and pave the way for overdue elections, but also enable Palestinians to present a united front in negotiations with Israel on a future Palestinian state.

Al Qassam members don’t see reconciliation as an option
But reconciliation is not an option for Al Qassam members, who make up a large part of Hamas security forces. Their bitterness toward Fatah still runs deep from the 2007 battle, and their victory brought a sense of ownership for Hamas power in Gaza that they will not easily give up.

“Al Qassam led the battle against Fatah and gave the victory to Hamas,” says Abu Khaled. “The Hamas government was weak until Al Qassam took the power and handed it to Hamas. Without us, there wouldn’t be a Hamas government.”

That is part of the reason that Hamas is not likely to sign, much less implement, the Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation agreement that would restructure the security apparatus, giving Fatah a hand in Gaza security.

“[Al Qassam fighters] are the ones who kicked Fatah out of the Gaza Strip; they are the ones being hunted and tortured in the West Bank,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza. “Qassam is against reconciliation and they will stand against [it] even if it means a big split within Hamas.”

The Egyptian document also calls for dissolving militias – understood to include Al Qassam – and incorporating them into the security apparatus. Dissolving the force that is considered the resistance against the Israeli occupation is out of the question for most Palestinians, not to mention Al Qassam itself.

Qassam seen as more powerful than Gaza’s Hamas government
Al Qassam militants, whose role in fighting Israel during the 2009 Gaza war added to the clout they’d gained two years earlier, are perceived as being more powerful than the Hamas-run government.

Hamas security forces are largely drawn from Al Qassam members – Abu Khaled says two-thirds of Hamas policemen are police by day and Al Qassam by night. Many Hamas government leaders are former or current Al Qassam members, or have sons in the armed brigades.

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Many in Gaza tell stories of jailed Al Qassam militants who are sprung overnight by their comrades, with the police unable or unwilling to intervene. Some accuse members of the brigades of burning down Crazy Water, a restaurant and water park accused of having looser social strictures.

“All the government, especially the security apparatuses, are derived from Al Qassam,” says Abu Mohamed, the leader of the cell in the Jabaliya refugee camp. “They belong to Al Qassam.”

That sense of ownership is firm. If reconciliation were to happen, says Abu Mohamed as he idly pulls his pistol from his waistband and sets it on the floor, “Fatah must be under [Hamas] control in Gaza. We must control Gaza.”

Talks conducted by Hamas political leaders
The reconciliation talks are conducted by the Syria-based political leadership of the Hamas movement, however, not the Gaza government. Al Qassam leaders stress that they have sworn allegiance to the leadership and will obey its orders. They are confident, however, that those orders will not include reconciliation.

Ahmed Yousef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, dismisses such talk with a wave of his hand. “They respect their political leaders and they abide by the regulations, and they are restricted to what the political leaders are telling them,” he says. “Those guys are smelling guns and bullets all the time. Don’t count on what they say. The people who will decide are the politicians.”

Dr. Yousef says the time is ripe for reconciliation, and the two sides will find a way to agree on restructuring the security apparatus. But distrust runs deep.

Early in October, Al Qassam leaders in Gaza held a press conference to denounce the PA’s arrest of militants in the West Bank and threatened to retaliate against Fatah members in Gaza. “How could Palestinian reconciliation succeed if we still hear this language of threatening and incitement?” asks Mr. Abusada.