Hamas Tightens Its Hold on the Gaza Strip

Written by Brom, Shlomo

INSS Insight No. 66, August 10, 2008
Brom, Shlomo
The violent confrontation between Hamas and Fatah that occurred in the Gaza Strip after the July 25th explosion of a car carrying Hamas activists has brought about a significant strengthening of Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip and an almost total elimination of Fatah’s presence there.

After Hamas’ June 2007 takeover of Gaza, the Islamic movement allowed Fatah to continue its local activities. Fatah leaders were able to travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, officials working for PA president Mahmoud Abbas continued to operate in Gaza, and Fatah’s organizational frameworks continued to function. Among the several reasons for this were Hamas' reluctance to burn all its bridges with Fatah and the PA; the hope of renewing the dialogue with Fatah; and the fact that Mohammad Dahlan’s rivals within Fatah in the Gaza Strip cooperated with Hamas in its takeover of the area.

The assassination of five senior members of Hamas’ military wing presented Hamas with the opportunity to wipe out Fatah’s presence in the Strip. Even if the assassination was the immediate catalyst, it is safe to assume that Hamas decided on this objective long ago because all attempts at dialogue with Fatah had failed: the PA in the West Bank, under Abbas’ leadership and in cooperation with Israel, is engaged in an ongoing effort to destroy the Hamas infrastructure there, and Fatah operatives in the Strip continued to challenge Hamas, in part through firing rockets into Israel in order to demonstrate that Hamas control of the Gaza Strip is weak.

Hamas has now forbidden Fatah activity in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Fatah members have been arrested, including the entire cadre of senior leaders there, and Hamas has taken control of all Fatah assets. The confrontation peaked with the clash between Hamas and the Hilles clan in the Seja’eya neighborhood. Ahmed Hilles, the senior figure in the clan, had served as Fatah’s director-general in Gaza and is Dahlan’s biggest rival. He headed the group of Fatah operatives who cooperated with Hamas, but this did not help him in the current confrontation. It was important to Hamas to break the clan’s military strength, the only locus of Fatah power left in the Strip.

An interesting aspect of Hamas’ actions, though it did not attract much attention, was its use of the opportunity to consolidate its power by dealing with power centers of other rivals not necessarily connected to Fatah. Hamas successfully imposed its rule over clan-based and other loci of power in Gaza. The most prominent among these were the Durmush clan in the Sabra neighborhood that used to operate under the name “Army of Islam,” which surrendered to Hamas forces, and the Ahmad Abu-Reish Brigades, a militia of the Abu-Reish clan active primarily in the southern part of the Strip and a major player in the tunnel smuggling industry. This clan suffered a heavy blow when dozens of its members were arrested and stripped of their weapons. In addition, Hamas closed down the Popular Front’s radio station in the Gaza Strip, the only opposition media left in Gaza and the only voice criticizing Hamas policies.

In Israel, attention focused on the photographs of wounded and destitute Fatah members fleeing into Israel, including some involved in terrorist attacks against Israel in recent years. However, this aspect of the latest development is secondary to the fact that Hamas has now attained full control of the Gaza Strip. If in the period since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza there were cracks in its hold and there was still the possibility that Hamas would fail in the same way Fatah had failed and would not be able to prevent local axes of power from undermining its policies, it is now clear that Hamas’ pattern of control is different and much more efficient. Hamas’ governing problems were apparent to a certain degree in its inability to force various elements to comply fully with the ceasefire. In the new situation, it is clear that violations of the ceasefire will result from Hamas indifference rather than an inability to enforce the ceasefire.

This will presumably influence the stability of the ceasefire. As long as Hamas is interested in continuing the ceasefire, it will likely be upheld without significant violations. By the same token, Hamas will also be able to fulfill any understanding it might reach with Israel or other parties, such as Egypt and the international community. This may have important implications for the possibility of reaching agreements regarding the Gaza-Egypt border. The containment of the Abu-Reish clan strengthens Hamas’ control of the smuggling industry and of all that takes place along the Egyptian border. It will be possible to take advantage of this to arrive at understandings with Hamas if it receives something in return that serves its interests, such as opening the Rafiah crossing.

The sole challenge remaining to Hamas' uncontested control of the Gaza Strip is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There are two possible scenarios here: in one, the organization will learn the lessons of the recent events and not confront Hamas, which will thereby allow it to continue to operate in the Gaza Strip; in the other, the organization will sooner or later find itself clashing with Hamas, whereupon Hamas will force it to surrender. Secret Fatah cells that continue to operate in the Gaza Strip will be weak and not pose a significant challenge to Hamas.

These recent events all indicate that it will only be possible to bring down the Hamas government in Gaza through a military takeover of the Gaza Strip. As a result, the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank becomes even more pronounced. The developments in Gaza strengthened the determination of the PA and Israel to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The PA’s security apparatuses went on high alert because of concerns that Hamas would retaliate in these areas, and PA forces stepped up its arrests of Hamas operatives. Similarly, there were efforts to prevent Islamic demonstrations and marches, and preachers were arrested at the mosques.

Will these developments affect the chances of reaching a deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit? Hamas’ increased self-confidence as a result of its recent success might make its negotiating posture even more rigid; on the other hand, it will also reduce Israel’s willingness to soften its stance. Therefore, the chances for concluding the deal in the near future are not very good.

Hamas’ nearly complete takeover of the Gaza Strip gives Israel better tools to manage the conflict with Hamas in the Strip because now the movement bears full responsibility for everything that happens there and has to account for every development. This new situation allows Israel to arrive at stable understandings with Hamas if it is so inclined. On the other hand, if the basic premise of Israel’s strategy is that the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip must be brought down, the ability to realize this strategy has been severely damaged, and the sole remaining option is occupation of the Gaza Strip, a course of action that would certainly incur a steep price.
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