Transforming Hamas Has Implications for Israel-Palestine

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The group's political leadership may be moderating, but its militant wing is radicalizing

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Palestinian scouts of Al-Qassam brigades take part in a graduation ceremony in Gaza City / Reuters

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The recent flare-up in violence between Israel and Gaza reveal the changing role Hamas plays in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The movement's relationship with the other militant groups in Gaza and the internal tension between its political and military wings are both shifting in ways that affect the conflict.

During the days of the Oslo Accords, Hamas would routinely excoriate the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority for protecting Israeli citizens above its own.  Obliged by the agreements penned between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat employed various means to tame the violent practices of Hamas and other militant groups. His methodology ranged from diplomacy to mass arrests and torture.

It is ironic, then, that Hamas now finds itself playing a similar role.

Since last Thursday, when a terrorist attack killed eight Israelis and led to an escalation in violence between Israel and Gaza, Hamas has actively sought to restrain other Gaza-based militant groups from further violence. These groups include Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, a coalition of militant Palestinian groups that Israel blames for the attack. According to several reports, as part of a ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt, Hamas agreed to attempt to prevent further attacks against Israel by other militant groups operating in its territory.

Hamas's actions in this episode follow a pattern of behavior that first emerged when it took over Gaza in 2007 and that became even more prevalent following the war it fought with Israel in 2008 and 2009. Since then, Hamas has made numerous efforts to exert its authority over Gaza, including, at times, arresting and even violently confronting operatives of other militant groups in the territory.

This, plus the relative quiet that the resistance movement has observed since the end of the Gaza War, lend some credence to theories that political authority, the dependence of a population, and territorial control can moderate the behavior, if not the ideology, of non-state militant groups.

But if anything, Hamas appears to be pursuing a very Arafat-esque policy toward its militant rivals.

By easing the leeway it grants the PRC and Islamic Jihad to operate in Gaza, Hamas may be using these other militant groups as a means to hit Israel without incurring the IDF's wrath. Many security analysts believe Arafat used Hamas in the same manner during the 1990s, applying pressure to Israel when it suited him by modifying the amount of operating room he granted the Islamist group. It is possible a similar scenario is developing now, only with Hamas now pulling the levers.

The recent violence also highlighted an apparent schism within Hamas.

While Hamas's political leadership was busy coordinating with Egypt, the PRC, and Islamic Jihad to reinstate the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, Hamas's military wing, the Qassam Brigades, issued a statement that the ceasefire between Israel and the resistance movement was over. It followed that by launching a rocket at the Israeli town of Ofakim, which the Brigades then took credit for on its website.

Only hours later, the claim of responsibility for the rocket attack was removed from the website and the Brigades ceased its own military operations against Israel (though rockets continued to be fired by the PRC and Islamic Jihad).

Nominally, the Qassam Brigades follows guidelines laid down by the Hamas political bureau, headquartered in Damascus. Based on those guidelines, the Brigades has broad tactical discretion, but it is not free to conduct policy on its own initiative. However it appears that this is exactly what happened when the Brigades declared an end to the ceasefire. Only afterward did the political bureau reign in the military wing, which resumed the quiet with Israel that has mostly held since January 2009.

Instances of the Hamas military wing acting contrary to the political bureau are rare, but not unprecedented. But the degree to which the Brigades so publicly and clearly embarked on its own initiative to attack Israel may be symptomatic of a drift toward hard-core radicalization in its military ranks.

The trend among Hamas fighters toward an ideology that appears more salafi and more like that of al-Qaeda, began when Ahmed al-Ja'abari and Nizar Rayan assumed leadership of the military wing in the mid-2000s. Rayan, who was assassinated by Israel in 2009, used the word kufr (unbeliever or infidel) to describe the secularists in the Palestinian Authority, a pointed departure from the language commonly used by Hamas leaders to describe other Palestinians. Al-Qaeda uses the same word for Arab regimes it seeks to destroy. Ja'abari, who is now the military chief, has stated that his aims are not political, but rather "to fight the enemies of Islam."

Relatively pragmatic voices in Hamas's political bureau have previously warned that far more extremist elements than themselves exist in Gaza, and that if Hamas was not treated as a legitimate interlocutor, the al-Qaeda types would emerge to lead the struggle of violent resistance against Israel. If this scenario were to play out within Hamas itself, the organization would become a far more dangerous threat to the Jewish state than it already is.

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Rafael D. Frankel is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University and has written about the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.

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