The intra-Palestinian balance of strength in the Gaza Strip was the object of intense scrutiny this week, days ahead of Israel’s withdrawal. Observers were able to make a judgment by watching the flare-ups of violence between Palestinian Authority security forces and the Hamas. The clashes coincided with the presence in Gaza of the PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, along with his strongest aides, Mohammed Dahlan, minister for civic affairs, and Gen. Nasser Yousef, who as interior minister is responsible for Palestinian security and intelligence forces.
They were supported by the Fatah al Aqsa Brigades fighters.
This group usually lines up with the Hamas for terrorist operations, but retains a vestigial allegiance to Abu Mazen when it comes down to a challenge against his authority in the territory.
The clashes flared in corners of the Gaza City refugee camps. Hamas fighters were able to set fire to PA armored personnel carriers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources summarize the course of events as witnessed and analyzed by American and other foreign military and intelligence observers present in Gaza. They all came to the clear conclusion that Hamas holds the military upper hand in the Gaza Strip. In consequence, as soon as Israel hands over, the Hamas will take over, rather than the Palestinian Authority and its chairman.
They reached several more conclusions:
Hamas turns to guerrilla tactics
1. The radical Hamas group mustered more troops than the PA and al Aqsa Brigades and is capable of outnumbering them three to one.
2. Elements of the Palestinian security forces employed on the side by Hamas refused to fight their Islamist comrades.
3. Hamas mobilized and deployed its strength with much greater speed and efficiency than the PA.
4. As a result, Hamas adherents seized 70% of the Gaza Strip’s strategic points and controlled roadblocks on road links between its towns.
5. PA security forces’ suffered five times more casualties in the clashes than did Hamas.
6. Hamas was seen for the first time to be evolving into a guerrilla force. The clashes exposed two new military elements: Qassam and mortar launchers mounted on vehicles painted in army camouflage colors showed up in the streets; and around 3,000 of the 10,000 enlisted Hamas fighters belonging to a newly-formed Popular Army unit were held in reserve. These conscripts are given three to four weeks of basic military training and sent home with their side-arms and a call-up code. This code broadcast over the public address systems of their mosques is the signal for them to report to their regional commanders. The Palestinian Authority has no such force at its disposal.
Hamas breaks away from dialogue with Abu Mazen
According to our military sources, the Egyptians were first to draw operational lessons from the emerging balance of Palestinian strength in the Gaza Strip. The delegation of Egyptian generals led by the intelligence minister Omar Suleiman‘s deputy, Gen. Ibrahim Bakri, which is almost permanently on hand in the Gaza Strip, advised Abu Mazen to henceforth avoid military clashes with the Hamas so as not to lose face.
They offered him no constructive advice on how to redress the military imbalance, evidently skeptical of his ability to make use of it and preferring to address the existing reality.
The Hamas is not resting on its laurels, but rather capitalizing on its superior strength for political gains.
First, the Hamas overseas leaders, Khaled Mashal and lieutenants, who commute regularly between Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Qatar, have leveled the charge against Abbas and Suleiman of reneging on all the understandings that were reached after Abu Mazen came to power in November 2004. Therefore, they no longer trust either, and are suspending contacts with the Palestinian leader and with Cairo.
Second, the Hamas delegate on the Palestinian Monitoring Committee for the Gaza Ceasefire was ordered to boycott the panel, the sole remaining forum for the PA chairman to hold any dialogue with Hamas and Jihad Islami.
The breakdown of this committee terminates this dialogue and removes all restraints holding the Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups back from launching attacks at will on Israeli targets.
The two Hamas steps were not capricious, but taken for the practical purpose of boosting its muscle in the Gaza Strip for an unchallenged property grab, its eye on the 21 high-value locations Israel abandons next week.
The success of the Hamas seizure will not only further undermine Abu Mazen’s authority, but place a large question mark over the intricate web of understandings governing the situation in the Gaza Strip during and after the pull-out, that were reached in laborious talks and maneuvers between Washington, Jerusalem, London, Cairo and Ramallah.
These understandings were designed to lead the Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations based on the Middle East road map, George W. Bush‘s blueprint for a peace accord and a key element in his war strategy in Iraq and against global terror.
The Gaza-West Bank land link will ease the export of terror
Hamas is moreover not an autonomous entity. This radical group, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, is an integral component of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas decisions are taken under guidance from the Brotherhood’s leaders in Cairo and a group of prominent Muslim clerics and scholars based in the Gulf emirates. Among them is the fiery al Jazeera television preacher, Sheikh Yousef Qardawi, who is close to al Qaeda and who is barred entry to the United States as a dangerous proponent of terror.
A Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s exit would therefore open the door wide to the entry of the Damascus-based uncompromising Palestinian terrorist heads and commands, from the Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal, Mussa Abu Marzuk and Imad Alami, to Jihad Islami’s Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, and even Qardawi.
Their arrival would sound the death knell for US and Israeli hopes that ceding the Gaza Strip would start a process of de-radicalization of the organized Palestinian terror movement and herald its assimilation into Palestinian Authority governance under Abbas’ leadership.
Even before the Israelis left, the reverse process is underway.
The next rulers of the Gaza Strip are making hay from the military and economic concessions forced on Israel by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the US security coordinator Gen. William Ward and the Quartet’s economic coordinator James Wolfensohn. Israel’s unwilling acceptance of an unbroken and unmonitored flow of human and freight traffic from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and on to the West Bank fits in perfectly with Hamas plans to extend its superior military structure from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank and to challenge the Palestinian Authority in both places.
This objective can be accomplished in a trice.
Hamas already commands 30% of the West Bank electorate – more, up to 40-50%, in places like Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, Qalqilya – and even the former Christian stronghold of Bethlehem.
Cairo had its own fish to fry when it demanded Israeli consent to an Egyptian military deployment along the Egyptian-Gaza border, clear of an Israeli sovereign or security presence. Egypt needs complete military control over the two-way traffic between Sinai and the Gaza Strip so as to prevent opposition Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda’s cells in Egypt and Sinai turning the Gaza Strip into a rear base against Cairo.
With a precise sense of timing, Al Qaeda established a branch in the Gaza Strip on the eve of Israel’s departure. Its objective is very clear, as will be seen in the next article.