Even if the Hamas leadership in Gaza tries to respond to the Palestinian Authority’s request to avoid attacks, it is doubtful if it has the power to influence the leaders of its military wing in the West Bank.
There were those among the leaders of the Palestinian Authority last week who accepted the Israeli version, as explained to Yasser Arafat by GSS Director Ami Ayalon, that Muhi a-Din Sharif was not killed by Israeli agents. This was also hinted by the fact that the official Palestinian announcement published yesterday avoided allocating responsibility for Sharif’s death. But the Palestinian leaders found it difficult to withstand the crowd’s rage in Gaza and the West Bank, which is convinced that Israel was responsible for another assassination, this time of the man called by the Palestinian street the ‘Engineer no. 2’.
Recent Hamas announcements and leaflets (whose authenticity is not always clear) say that revenge for Sharif’s murder will be harsher than for Yehiye Ayash. The connection between the two cases was demonstrated by Hamas activists who invited Ayash’s father to stand beside Sharif’s father during the large funeral held last Thursday in Ramallah.
The possibility that they will launch revenge attacks in Israel also arouses concern among Arafat and his aides. There are preliminary signs of economic revitalization in the territories due to the easing of the closure. Crossing the roadblocks from the West Bank into Israeli territory is nearly frictionless, the soldiers rarely stop to check anyone and raids on workplaces to catch unregistered Palestinian workers within Israel itself have stopped. Many vehicles with Palestinian license plates can be seen on Israel’s roads, and the Liaison Office in Gaza permits more workers and merchants to enter Israel. Trucks from Gaza, too, loaded with goods, travel in organized convoys to the ports of Ashdod and Haifa, and eastward to Jordan, in greater regularity and numbers than in the past. A terrorist attack could put a stop to all this.
In order to try and stop imminent revenge attacks, the Palestinian Authority has taken an unusual step. Its representatives, headed by Authority Director-General a-Taib Abd al-Rahim, last Thursday summoned Hamas’ political wing in Gaza, headed by Sheikh Abd al-Aziz al- Rantisi, to an urgent meeting. Hamas activists were offered participation in a joint investigation on Sharif’s death.
Although the Palestinian police have collected all the evidence of the explosion, they have no information on Sharif’s movements in the final hours and days prior to his death. If it was indeed an Israeli operation, as Hamas agents believe, it was carried out in cooperation with Palestinian forces (as happened in the case of Ayash), and the only way to find them and their Israeli handlers, if any, is to check the people with whom Sharif recently met. Anyone who knew of the warehouse, or laboratory, where the explosion took place, where Sharif was before arriving at the location, whom he met with, who brought him there and other classified details which only Hamas activists, Sharif’s colleagues, know about. It is hard to imagine that Hamas military activists would agree to hand over classified information on their agents to Arafat’s security apparatus. They know that Palestinian security officials give information to the Israeli GSS and suspect that they hand Hamas agents over to Israel.
Arafat’s messengers also asked the Hamas leaders in Gaza to restrain and not react with attacks at this time, because such a response could cause severe damage to Palestinian interests. There could be political damage besides any economic harm. Arafat now expects the American proposals regarding the continued Israeli withdrawal to be announced at any time, and it is clear that a terrorist attack would help Netanyahu’s government to reject any such proposal.
But even if the Hamas leadership in Gaza were to try to act on the Palestinian Authority’s request, it is not clear if it has the power to influence the leaders of the organization’s military wing in the West Bank. The questions: When do the leaders of the Hamas cells decide to carry out an attack; who among them takes orders and religious and political instruction and what considerations motivate the decision makers, have for years not only worried Israeli intelligence, but also the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and no-one has any clear answers.
Israeli intelligence sources, for example, point to the fact that “Izz a-Din al-Qassam” brigade commanders (Hamas cells) in the West Bank are connected to the Hamas leadership in Jordan more than they are to the leadership in Gaza. According to (Israeli) suspicions, the men who transfer instructions and funds from Jordan to the cells in the West Bank are Khaled Masha’al and Imad al-Alami, who reside in Amman, as well as other known political activists such as Mahmoud Nizal and Ibrahim Rousha. It is also known that Hamas leaders residing abroad generally support the hard line — of terrorist attacks — more than the leadership in Gaza and the West Bank do. The reason for this is that the leaders abroad are not subject to the persistent pressures of the Palestinian Authority, and no-one from the street comes up to them to complain that their sources of income in Israel are blocked due to the attacks.
Because of the differences in the positions between the Hamas leadership scattered in Israel and abroad, Hamas leaders tend to periodically call coordination meetings, where important decisions are made. In the past, Mussa Abu Marzook, who is known to be the head of Hamas’ political wing, and Mustapha Lindawi, considered to be the Hamas leader in Lebanon, as well as other activists from Jordan and Egypt used to come to these meetings (usually held in Cairo or Khartoum). There have been cases when the Israeli government granted permission to Hamas leaders in Israel to travel abroad, hoping that they would bring moderate positions to these meetings. There have also been occasions where Israel prevented them from leaving. Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was recently permitted to leave for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
A large group of senior Hamas leaders asked to accompany him. Israel thought that the Hamas leadership in the country and abroad intended to convene another senior leadership meeting, this time in Saudi Arabia, and decided not to allow them to go.
It is further known that the leadership of Hamas’ military wing has a considerable degree of freedom. They have the authority to decide on all matters regarding the operational side and timing of attacks. But they need the political-religious authority and permission on all matters regarding the act of carrying out attacks. Following the assassination of Yehiye Ayash in January 1996, Hamas activists waited nearly two months before before carrying out their revenge attacks. No-one can prophesy what will happen now. Meanwhile people in the West Bank and Gaza are preparing to celebrate Id el-Adkha, which begins this week; on the streets of eastern Jerusalem, Palestinians could be heard saying that the quiet will last at least until the holiday is over.