The battle for power in Palestine

Published April 19th, 2014 - 06:00 GMT

The role of Islamic Jihad is expanding on the Palestinian scene. Their Iranian and Syrian allies have increased their support after Hamas left its headquarters in Damascus. Islamic Jihad left their Damascus headquarters as well but they did not go to Qatar. Hamas sees in Islamic Jihad today more of a strong competitor than a partner, even though both organizations share the same political philosophy of armed resistance.

Days ago, the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad put an end to a new dispute that broke out between their supporters when the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Affairs of the Gaza government dismissed the imam of the Ibrahim al-Khalil Mosque, Murid al-Qanouh. The imam claimed that he was fired for political reasons, while ministry said that he was dismissed because he had stopped doing his job for the last two months.

This latest dispute was not the first of its kind, but it sheds light on the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now moving in opposite directions.The dispute evolved into a fist fight between worshippers. Weapons were even used in some mosques in northern Gaza. The political leadership on both sides intervened quickly to end the clashes, which they described as personal.

In mid March, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, appeared on Al-Mayadeen TV praising Hamas in order to stop their enemies from exploiting any possible disputes between both parties. He announced that Operation Breaking the Silence, conducted that month by Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, al-Quds Brigades, was in coordination with Hamas.

He also said that he met the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, in Qatar. Later it became evident that Shallah was leading a new mediation effort to coordinate a visit by Meshaal to Tehran. Two days after that first interview, Shallah appeared again to confirm what he said but this time on the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera.

But the reality on the ground is a far cry from what both groups have been saying in the media. Disagreements between their members are escalating but leaders on both sides rush to contain the situation even when there are casualties.

Clashes erupted between the members of the two organizations two weeks ago inside a mosque in the city of Khan Younis. A member of Islamic Jihad who witnessed the incident but wanted to remain anonymous tells Al-Akhbar: “Three leaders known in the area came to the mosque, attacked us, and then kicked us out.”

As to why he refused to give his name, he said: “Our leadership in Islamic Jihad refuses to clash with Hamas even if we are the ones wronged. If we speak to the media about these incidents they will take punitive measures against us. This is the fifth incident in less than a month.”

A major dispute erupted in the city of Rafah last month between members of the two groups. For the first time ever, the incident was recorded as “an attack by a number of Shia converts on a Salafi sheikh.” Islamic Jihad, religious associations, families and tribes convened a reconciliation session. The leaders of Islamic Jihad stressed that “their movement is a Sunni movement despite the special relationship they have with Iran.”

The last major crisis between the two groups was last June when a member of the police force, which is affiliated with Hamas, killed an Islamic Jihad leader called Raad Jundiyah. Jundiyah, according to an Islamic Jihad statement, was responsible for firing rockets against Israel and escaped several assassination attempts. Hamas refused to take responsibility for the incident saying that Jundiyah killed himself by mistake when he was asked to turn himself over to the police.

In response, Islamic Jihad cut off its relationship with Hamas. That night nine Grad rockets were fired at Israeli settlements near Gaza. Israel responded by bombing training sites in Gaza and threatened to break the truce. The prime minister of the Gaza government and Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, established an investigative committee. The results led to acknowledging the responsibility of the police for the incident without specifying the identity of the shooter. The issue was solved once again through a reconciliation meeting and the relationship was restored between the two organizations.

Cairo and Islamic Jihad

Politically, what bothers Hamas the most, as it was expressed by its official spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum, is the contacts between Egypt and Islamic Jihad. Cairo tried to solidify the truce between the Resistance and Israel after Operation Breaking the Silence based on the understanding reached in 2012. Islamic Jihad accepted the mediation and launched only about 150 5-8 range rockets.

Islamic Jihad does not believe that its contacts with Cairo mean sidestepping Hamas. Islamic Jihad’s representative in Lebanon, Abu Imad al-Rifai, explained how treating Hamas as part of the Muslim Brotherhood network made the Egyptian authorities avoid communication with them. He added: “We understand that Hamas is annoyed by the Egyptian decision to sidestep it, but coordination between us was not affected.” As proof, he cited “the official and strong participation by the Islamic Jihad leadership in a Hamas festival that was held in Gaza after establishing contacts with Egypt.”

Mohammed al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said in a simultaneous statement that his organization does not mind “partnering in the management of Palestinian affairs after agreeing on a national leadership.” This statement is different from what the Islamic Jihad always proclaims. They believe that there is no way to engage in a political experiment before liberation and refuse to participate in what they call “products of the Oslo Agreement.”

Nevertheless, the organization participated in the municipal elections in 2005 but it did not win the leadership in any of the municipalities. Today, Islamic Jihad believes that its popularity has improved dramatically “because it avoided getting bogged down in internal divisions and because it has no Palestinian blood on its hands,” as Abu Hamza puts it.

Security concerns

Abu Hamza (a pseudonym) from al-Quds Brigades talked openly about fights with Hamas that have not been reported in the media. Even though the Egyptian army destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels, he says, some of them are still open so we can still smuggle fuel and arms for the Resistance but “Hamas limits our ability to bring in supplies.”

Some days “they don’t allow certain kinds of weapons in unless Hamas gets the same kind or at least inspects the smuggled weapons.” He tells Al-Akhbar: “We carried out some operations at the border without announcing them. The government’s internal security agency tried to look for the perpetrators to find out who they are. They see themselves as responsible for the country’s security, but that harms the secrecy of the work we do and exposes us to the Israeli occupation.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Hamas remained committed to the truce despite Israeli violations. Israel continued to target Islamic Jihad through assassinations. Islamic Jihad led four major confrontations single handedly and tried to expand the range of its targets in the last confrontation with the occupation, forcing the residents of southern occupied Palestine to stay in shelters for two days. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah pointed this out in one of his speeches.

Also, in the 2012 war, the strikes by al-Quds Brigades matched those of Hamas’ armed wing - al-Qassam Brigades. They both bombed Tel Aviv. Shallah actually announced that they preceded Hamas in the decision-making and implementation process.

Al-Quds Brigades’ latest military parades on the streets of the Gaza Strip revealed new kinds of weapons like anti-aircraft missiles and snipers. Pictures by news agencies showed a lot of similarity between the two organizations in the weapons that were on display. Al-Quds Brigades had agreed to participate in a military parade headed by al-Qassam Brigades, but withdrew the last minute when Hamas’ fighters carried the Rabia al-Adawiya signs associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

By Hani Ibrahim

© Al-Akhbar. All rights reserved

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