WJC ANALYSIS - Terrorist attacks in the Negev : The inner struggle in Gaza

By Pinhas Inbari

A well planned multi-faceted terrorist attack claimed the lives of eight Israelis last weekend in southern Israel near the Red Sea port of Eilat. Israel put the responsibility for the attacks on a Gaza-based organization called 'The Popular Resistance Committees' and swiftly proceeded to kill the high ranks of its command in Rafah. It is notable that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did not put the blame on Hamas in his official statement. Moreover, a reading of Hamas' websites reveals that they, too, distanced themselves from the attacks in the Negev. Hamas opted to give the honor for this operation to the Committees alone, clarifying that their policy of resistance is to be conducted from within the Palestinian territories and not from without.

What are the Popular Resistance Committees, and why did they carry out the attack at this time?

The relations between Hamas and other radical organizations, with the Committees being one of many, are not clearly delineated. They are characterized by a love-hate relationship and a lack of clear boundaries between the organizations. In principle, there is a very clear ideological split between Hamas and the other organizations. While Hamas, a movement fashioned after the Muslim Brotherhood, participated in the elections that brought it to power in 2006 in order to form a government, all other organizations, topped by al-Qaeda, criticized it on the grounds that maintaining a government comes at the expense of jihad and resistance. Ironically, Hamas' worst enemy, the Fatah, is in line with Hamas' ideology of formal government; they only disagree on who should be at its helm.

While Hamas, who is responsible for everyday civic life in Gaza, wishes to maintain the ceasefire with Israel, the other groups constantly try to shake the ceasefire and force Hamas to abandon its government and join the jihad without the restrictions placed upon it by governmental responsibilities. 

The problem is that even as Hamas has been largely successful in containing the other organizations, it fell short of completely eradicating them for a variety of reasons. First, it was in Hamas' interest to use them against Israel in order to pressure the latter while avoiding direct aggressive engagement. This tactic resembled the way former PLO leader Yasser Arafat used to pressure Israel by allowing Hamas to attack Israel in lieu of the PLO. Second, these organizations, especially the Islamic Jihad, are linked with Iran and Syria. They used Damascus and Tehran to pressure Hamas not to let it crush them in Gaza. Third, these jihadist organizations are very popular among Hamas' rank and file, with Hamas constantly "bleeding" cadres to these bodies, which would explain why an all out showdown might not be welcomed by Hamas' foot soldiers.

Yet the situation in Gaza is even more complex, especially when it comes to the Committees. The Committees are actually Fatah's birth child, not Hamas'. The first commander of the Committees was Jamal Abu Samhadana, a Fatah arch terrorist smuggled into Gaza by Yasser Arafat himself in the car that brought Arafat to Gaza following the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1994. In its first few years of existence, during the Fatah-led second Intifada, the Committees included Fatah and Hamas cadres, along with other organizations, overseen by Fatah.

The Committees contain an al-Qaeda element, embodied by the participation of the leader of the 'Army of Islam', Mumtaz Dugmush, who only last week was declared a wanted terrorist by the United States. Dugmush was a senior officer in Dahlan's Fatah "Preventative Security". In the wake of Hamas' takeover of Gaza, he became a target. Hamas struck at Dugmush's powerful family and greatly decreased its might.
While Dugmush presented himself as al-Qaeda's leader in Gaza, al-Qaeda never actually endorsed him as such. Instead, the name under which al-Qaeda operates in the area is the 'Abdallah Azam Brigades'. So, while many assumed that Dahlan was challenging Hamas through Dugmush and his "Army of Islam", he was never actually supported by al-Qaeda.

Despite the Dugmush connection, Fatah has no influence on the Committees today. After Hamas' takeover of Gaza, it eradicated Fatah and greatly decreased Dugmush's influence and power. Afterwards, Ahmad Ja'bari, a leading Hamas commander, took control of the al-Qassam Brigades and the Committees abducted the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It was Ja'bari, however, who took charge of the kidnapped Israeli soldier and not the Committees.

As Ja'bari was sitting down in Cairo with the Israelis to end the longstanding crisis surrounding the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the Committees carried out their very sophisticated terrorist attack in Southern Israel. Did they wish to destroy the agreements Ja'bari was trying to conclude because he snatched Shalit from their hold? It was reported last month that the Committees were originally planning to kidnap other Israeli soldiers. Was it their aim to help Ja'bari in his difficult negotiation or, on the contrary, to embarrass him? Did Ja'bari have prior knowledge of the operation or did the Committees bypass him?

While much remains unknown, what is certain is that all parties are united in foiling Ramallah's September project, despite their differences and intrigue. Whether Hamas was involved in the operation or bypassed by the Committees, the outcome of growing tensions along the borders with Israel is welcomed both by Hamas and its Gazan rivals. While last night Hamas declared that it agreed to a ceasefire, it may actually find a carefully controlled escalation with Israel to be advantageous in overshadowing the Ramallah-led September bid.

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