3. Enter Abdel Aziz Rantisi

The next important development after the death of Hamas leader, Ahmed Yassin, occurred in Gaza’s main soccer stadium between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23. The many thousands who had crowded into the mourning tent erected there five hours after Yassin’s assassination were introduced with unseemly haste to his self-declared successor, Abel-Aziz al-Rantisi, a 57-year old pediatrician.

The day before, the miles-long funeral procession had moved along without a hitch. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources, Hamas leaders had apparently agreed to shelve the contentious issue of his successor for the time being and come back to it later, though not before the first week of August. Instead, they concentrated on making speeches threatening to heap dire revenge on Israel and its leaders.

But Hamas’ top echelon had a compelling reason to avoid addressing the succession issue so soon after their loss. It arose from the well-defined hierarchy in any Muslim Brotherhood national branch. The General Guide, in this case Ahmed Yassin, is the supreme leader. Below him is the Shura Council. But slotted between the leader and the Council is a secret panel, an Iranian-style Council of Guardians. The Hamas rank and file would not have known about this body; they had not been aware that their movement was a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even senior officers in the organization, including Shura Council members, do not have the identities of Guardian Council members.

But with Yassin gone, the question arose of who had the authority to call the Guardian Council into session? The answer: only Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohammed Akef in Cairo.

This brought the Hamas leaders in Gaza face to face with the hard realization that, far from being an independent Palestinian movement, they were in fact no more than a Brotherhood cell.

Hamas veterans began asking who in the Muslim world would be giving them orders and who would select their new leader. They didn’t like the answers they got – most of all, that the decision was out of their hands. The next leader of the most potent Palestinian terrorist group would not, in other words, be named by Hamas, Gaza, but by Muslim Brotherhood policy-makers in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Even Brotherhood members in the United States, a key source of funds for the organization, would have a say.

To add insult to injury, Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah – both of whom have strong connections with local Brotherhood chapters – would be at liberty to take a hand in Hamas king-making. And so, too, would Israel which held 1,000 Hamas members in its prisons.

Rantisi’s “military coup”

The faction most irked by this new situation was the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam “military” wing, whose leaders decided to move fast to make sure Hamas, Gaza, determined the choice of new leader and not outsiders.

According to our sources, they approached the firebrand Rantisi, a top Hamas official and its main spokesman, and advised him to stand up and declare himself the new leader before even the three days of mourning were over – in effect, fronting a military coup and a statement of Hamas’ independence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Rantisi understood he would not survive long in a power vacuum without any recognized stamp of authority. He was afraid that by bucking a leadership system in place for 17 years he risked destroying Hamas. Therefore, before delivering his bombshell at the stadium, he turned secretly for support to the most popular Muslim television preacher in the Arab word, the Qatar-based Egyptian sheikh Yousef Qardawi,

Qardawi, a mega-star of the Arab satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, is no stranger to readers of DEBKA-Net-Weekly and DEBKAfile. His sermons lay out Osama bin Laden’s tenets with one difference: While the al Qaeda chief calls outright for true believers to kill all heretics – Jews and Christians – and advocates the destruction of their power center, the United States, Qardawi is less inflammatory and more subtle. He explains that all non-believers will ultimately see the light and convert to Islam and their countries will be integrated in the Muslim world in the natural order ordained by Allah.

Like Yassin, who cloaked his association with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qardawi has taken great pains to appear as his own man. But, like Yassin, Qardawi is a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood and shares wholeheartedly in the radical beliefs of his fellow Egyptian, the Islamic Jihad leader and bin Laden’s leading partner, Ayman Zuwahiri.

The TV preacher kept Rantisi on ice for a few tense hours while he mulled his options. A commitment to support the defiant Rantisi and adopt the violent Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades as their religious patron was not to be entered into lightly. It meant crossing a point of no return in his allegiance to the Brotherhood. On the other hand, the charismatic Egyptian radical saw himself acquiring a fully-fledged terrorist group to stand at his beck and call, just like bin Laden and Zuwahiri – a prospect viewed with extreme alarm by the United States, Israel and moderate Arab governments in the Middle East.

First cracks in Hamas unity

After balancing the odds, Qardawi picked up the gauntlet.

At 6:40 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23, he gave Rantisi the nod. It took the Hamas leader another hour or so to bring Yassin’s devotees and personal aides like Ismail Haniya on board. Rantisi promised to stick to the late sheikh’s policy of restraining Hamas from overseas terrorist action.

At around 7:40 pm, before the funeral rites were over, Haniya grabbed the microphone in the Gaza stadium and proclaimed Rantisi the new Hamas leader.

Many in the crowd stood up and bowed in tribute and fidelity. But that was when the first cracks formed in the terrorist organization.

Several hours after the declaration, DEBKA-Net-Weekly, surfing through Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood Internet websites, found not a single mention of Rantisi’s appointment. Only the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam’s website saw fit to carry the news, clearly signaling that this Hamas arm is his only backer. No other Hamas faction has thus far followed Qardawi in endorsing Rantisi’s coup.

On Wednesday, March 25, however, most European media were happy to crown him as Yassin’s successor. Nonetheless he prudently beat a fast retreat from his earlier grandstanding. Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards armed to the teeth, the new leader cut himself down to size, reading out a statement that acknowledged Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas politburo, as supreme leader of the organization and limiting his own area of authority to the Gaza Strip’s borders. He defined the West Bank as falling under the rule of Mashaal.

This apparent backtrack did not obviate Rantisi’s seizure of power; it only widened the rift in the Hamas leadership created by Yassin’s abrupt demise. Rantisi’s faction, Yassin’s following and the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades now rule the Gaza Strip. But the West Bank is in the charge of an absentee boss and Hamas operatives are forced to rely on joint operations with Yasser Arafat’s Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and funding from the Lebanon-based Iranian Republican Guards officers and Hizballah.

The power balance at Hamas Central in Damascus is just as complicated.

Meshaal, a personal friend of Qardawi’s, is currently at odds with Imad al-Alami, Hamas’ chief operations officer. Alami is close to Iranians, Hizballah and al Qaeda agents based in Syria and Lebanon and with such Palestinian hard liners as Munir Makadah, commander of Palestinian forces in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon, also maintains close ties with all of those elements.

Neither Alami nor Hamdan have informed Mashaal where they stand in the Hamas leadership stakes. The Hamas operation is thus split three ways between Gaza, Damascus and Beirut together with southern Lebanon.

No Shiite help wanted

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources can report exclusively that, several hours before Yassin was killed, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah held a secret conference in Damascus with Hamas officers Meshaal, Hamdan and Mohammed Nazal, a politburo member close to Tehran. Nasrallah offered them a joint plan of action for delivering a powerful attack on Israel. The three Hamas men were cool to the idea.

“Yes, we are prepared to take your money for terrorist strikes but not to carry out joint operations,” they said. “We believe in mutual help among the organizations, but each must act independently.”

Hamas’ reluctance to work with Hizballah may derive from the way matters are developing in Iraq where al Qaeda and Sunni Baathist guerrilla forces have been striking deathly blows against Shiites. The Sunni Hamas and its secret master, the Muslim Brotherhood, have no wish to cooperate with the Shiite Hizballah.

But Nasrallah does not give up easily. As night fell on Tuesday, March 23, Hizballah opened the door to a Palestinian Katyusha rocket firing squad asking to set up its launcher in the central sector of southern Lebanon. From there, the squad belonging to Ahmed Jibril‘s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, planned to rain rockets down on Israel’s western Galilee and the towns of Shlomi, Maalot and Nahariya.

Nasrallah wanted this to be a lesson to the ungrateful Hamas to show them that other Palestinian groups were perfectly willing to accept his aid for launching the revenge attacks that Hamas had sworn to discharge. In the nick of time, the Israeli air force, which had kept a close watch on southern Lebanon, spotted the rocket launchers and took them out before they could fire.

Such intelligence successes are not an everyday occurrence and no guarantee that Katyusha rockets will not ever hit Israeli cities and cause heavy casualties.

Damascus faction finally comes round

It took a couple of days, but by Wednesday, March 23, Rantisi’s putsch on behalf of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam had gained acceptance from Damascus. Two peacemakers had stepped into the breach, Mustafa Lidawi and Osama Hamdan. They were egged on by Tehran and the Hizballah who had begun to fear that internal warfare in the Hamas would put paid to their own master plan for converting the Gaza Strip into a second Mediterranean launching pad after South Lebanon for terrorism, gun-running and dope smuggling.

As soon as Rantisi and Mashaal made their peace, the Hamas Damascus bureau officially congratulated Rantisi on assuming the post of “Hamas official responsible for the Gaza Strip.” The message did not say he was elected but only “assumed” the post. Neither was he dubbed “leader” only “official responsible.”

Soon after the announcement, Rantisi declared in an interview to Arabiya television: “I am duty-bound to obey Brother Mashaal.”

These moves effectively papered over the feud.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian sources point out that this is no guarantee of future harmony. Rantisi is present in the Gaza Strip and is supported by two allies Qardawi and Izz el-Deen al-Qassam. Mashaal is far away in Damascus. He may have carried off the first round of the contest only to discover that while he has the power to make decisions and issue orders, no one down the line in the Gaza Strip will obey him. Rantisi may just shrug and say he duly passed the orders on but the “military” wing refused to carry them out.

Any such dissonances in the functioning of the chain of command are of pivotal importance to the future operational effectiveness of Islamic fundamentalist terror and the numbers it is able to field. The Hizballah aside, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades are the best organized quasi military force commanded by any radical Islamic organization. It resembles a paramilitary unit more than a terrorist group.

Rantisi’s coup and his alliance with this force have without his noticing opened up the field for another contest over who will take control of the coveted force and chart its future path – whether as he declared latterly only against Jewish targets in “Palestine” or as part of outside fundamentalist organizations like al Qaeda, Hizballah, Ansar al Islam and the Egyptian Jihad Islami.

Al Qaeda’s top men have their own ideas on the subject.

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