Israel Pulse

Will Hamas surrender Qassam Brigades to Abbas?

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Article Summary
According to a Palestinian security source, there will be no reconciliation with Hamas unless the movement agrees to give up the army it has created in Gaza.

Members of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) government headed by Rami Hamdallah arrived in Gaza on Oct. 2 for an Oct. 3 meeting to advance efforts for a reconciliation with Hamas. Joining them were the heads of the PA's security apparatus, Majid Faraj, director of the Palestinian Intelligence Services, and Ziad Hab al-Rih, head of Preventative Security. Faraj and Hab al-Rih will ultimately determine whether there will be a reconciliation. They will make their decision after hearing from their Hamas counterparts about how much Hamas is willing to concede.

Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and the movement's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, have recently been talking quite a bit about turning the page in their dispute with Fatah and the importance of Palestinian unity. On Sept. 17, Hamas announced the dissolution of its shadow government administering Gaza. Shortly afterward, Sinwar told journalists that the announcement had been made before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 20 so the world would view Abbas as the strong leader of a unified Palestinian people. Sinwar, as proof of his seriousness, said that the head of the movement's military wing, Mohammed al-Deif, is an enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation. As everyone in Gaza and the West Bank knows, whatever Deif says goes.

Much has already been written, including in Al-Monitor, about what is motivating Hamas to advance reconciliation at this particular moment. It looks like the movement's current leadership has no choice but to accept the Egyptian ultimatum that makes the opening of the Rafah border crossing dependent on Palestinian reconciliation. Indeed, in parallel with the arrival of the PA ministers, a delegation of senior Egyptian intelligence officers also arrived in Gaza to serve as patrons of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks. Joining them there are Egypt's ambassador to Israel and Egypt's consul in Ramallah.

"Abbas knows that once they are done with all the hugs, the statements and the photo ops for all the news agencies in the Gaza Strip, and they finally get down to brass tacks, the smiles will be wiped off [the Hamas representatives’] faces," a Palestinian security source told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity. "[Hamas leaders] still don't understand the meaning of unity and the importance of one government. Most of all, they still don’t understand that Abbas is the Palestinian president and as such, the supreme commander of the Palestinian military forces."

Hamas currently has a fully equipped army with tens of thousands of armed troops. If there really is to be a Palestinian reconciliation, Hamas will have to accept that these troops will no longer be its private military. Instead, they would become part of the PA's security apparatus, subject to Abbas' authority. Furthermore, Hamas' military doctrine is to prepare for armed conflict with Israel, whereas Abbas considers the Palestinian security outfit to be a police force, charged with maintaining public order, securing his regime and protecting the PA's official institutions.

Is there a way to bridge these differences? The first hint of a point of dispute for Hamas and Fatah could be found in a statement by senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk, who said on the eve of the meeting in Gaza that the fate of the movement's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is not up for discussion in the talks.

"If Hamas is not prepared to give up the army that it created in the Gaza Strip since the coup [in 2007], if it is unwilling to abandon the smuggling of weapons and ammunition, and if it still regards Iran as a supporter and influential ally, there is absolutely nothing to talk about," the Palestinian source said. "We can all smile for the camera and go right back to Ramallah."

In fact, anyone familiar with the way Hamas has operated since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord and Israel's recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) knows that there is a significant ideological divide separating Fatah, the leading PLO faction, and Hamas, which is not in the PLO, and that this gap cannot be bridged. The dispute revolves around what the PA should look like, what its objectives and goals are and how it should achieve them.

Hamas believes that the liberation of Palestine will be brought about through jihad and armed struggle against Israel. In contrast, Abbas and other top leaders of the PLO have chosen diplomatic means as their preferred strategy. The chances that Hamas will accept this as a principle, and that the movement will refrain from strengthening the military force that it has created or abandon it entirely, all tend toward zero.

According to the Palestinian source, Hamas is talking about a gradual reconciliation, including a long-term timetable, that would allow the PA a modicum of control over its military forces in Gaza. On the other hand, it will never concede full control of these forces to the PA. What Hamas is really offering is Palestinian reconciliation in the form of a "hudna," or long-term cease-fire, just like it offered Israel in 2015, due to the crisis facing the organization and the realization that at that point it could not reach its objectives in its struggle against Israel. The same is true of the proposed reconciliation with Fatah. The reconciliation initiative comes as a result of pressure within Hamas and the clear understanding that the movement has reached a dead end and is trapped. It has two choices: reconciliation or oblivion.

The dilemma Hamas faces is clear. Abandoning its military wing and transferring responsibility for security affairs to Abbas would be considered total surrender, even suicide as far as it is concerned. That is why it seems that what Haniyeh, Sinwar and Deif are really trying to do amounts to little more than drawing out the process.

As described in the Quran, a hudna is understood as a temporary cease-fire for a limited time in order to reorganize and grow stronger. Hamas cannot give up the Qassam Brigades, because they are its greatest pride and glory in the conflict with the "Zionist foe." On the other hand, it could grant a certain amount of symbolic control to Abbas if doing so would save the movement. "We understand where this is heading, but it won't work," the Palestinian source said. "If they [Hamas] expect Abbas to lift all the sanctions he imposed on them and to start pouring money into Gaza as early as tomorrow morning, they are mistaken."

The source refused to say whether Abbas plans to lift sanctions on Hamas gradually, based on the principle that the greater his control over the security apparatus in Gaza, the more money he will allow into Gaza for civilian purposes.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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