JERUSALEM – Hamas’ secretive military wing emerged from hiding Saturday, naming commanders and detailing how they attacked Israelis as part of a competition with the Palestinian Authority over who will get credit for
Israel’s pullout from Gaza.
The battle over public opinion could determine who rules Gaza after the last Israeli soldiers leave on Sept. 15. Hamas says it drove Israel out with attacks, while Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas credits his nonviolent approach.
On Saturday, a defiant Hamas delivered a new challenge to Abbas, who has come under increasing international pressure to disarm the group after the Israeli pullout, but is reluctant to do so.
On its Web site, the Hamas military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, laid bare its command structure for the first time, posting names of seven top operatives, along with photos, biographies and interviews. One of the commanders said the group had more volunteers for suicide missions than he could dispatch.
Hamas is also printing tens of thousands of flyers with the content of the Web site, to be distributed in coming days in mosques and at rallies.
The seven names were known to some in Gaza, but Saturday marked the first time Hamas itself presented them in public, along with their job titles. At the top of the pyramid was Mohammed Deif, who has been No. 1 on Israel’s wanted list for years and has survived three attempts by Israel to kill him.
In comments posted on the Web site, Deif warned that Hamas would use force if Palestinian police tried to disarm or arrest members of the group.
“We will respond to any attack, whether from the Authority or from the Israelis,” Deif was quoted as saying. “We will respond strongly to any attack on us.”
Deif also said Izzedine al Qassam would not disband but would instead continue to develop weapons, including rockets.
He was evasive when asked whether the group would stick to an informal cease-fire with Israel, particularly after the Gaza pullout. Hamas is competing in parliamentary elections in January and appears reluctant to carry out attacks, amid concerns it could lose popularity among voters if held responsible for provoking Israeli reprisals.
Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the
West Bank, said Izzedine al Qassam came forward “to show the role of resistance in liberating Gaza.” Alluding to the competition with Abbas, he said: “They (the militants) felt that there are some people who wanted to downplay the role of the resistance.”
Abbas is also trying to win political capital from the Israeli pullout.
He stands to gain if Gazans, fenced in during nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, win some freedom of movement as a result of new border arrangements the Palestinian Authority is trying to negotiate with Israel.
In a visit to Palestinian schools at the start of the new school year Saturday, Abbas emphasized that the Israeli pullout will improve daily life.
“God willing, the people will live in peace and security,” Abbas told students in Gaza City. “The Israeli attacks will end, and then people will enjoy freedom of movement.”
A senior Israeli defense official, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, reiterated Saturday that Israel would retaliate harshly against any attacks from Gaza even after the pullout. He said the Palestinian Authority has the means, but not the political will to disarm Hamas.
“Hamas is basically setting itself up as an alternative Palestinian Authority,” he told Israel Radio.
Israel has demanded Abbas disarm the group — in line with Palestinian obligations under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. Israel also opposes Hamas participation in parliament elections.
Abbas has been trying to co-opt the militants, offering them employment in the security services and urging them not to flaunt their weapons in public. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday that “changes of government and power will be through ballots, not bullets.”
However, Abbas might be forced to act if Hamas continues to embarrass him, as part of the growing competition over public support.
In his Web site comments, Deif described how Izzedine al Qassam gradually built bombs and rockets. He said the group’s first attack, in January 1992, was the killing of a rabbi in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza. “He was shot by our brothers with a 7mm pistol … which was the only pistol that we had,” Deif was quoted as saying.
In 1995, after a few failures, Hamas built its first crude bombs, followed a few years later by rockets. He said the most effective weapon were scores of suicide bombings Hamas set off in Israel from the mid-1990s. Hundreds of Israelis, including many civilians, were killed in such bombings.
The other senior operatives named on the Web site were: Ahmed Jaberi, a Deif deputy; Raed Saed, commander of Gaza City; Ahmed al Ghandor, commander of northern Gaza; Mohammed Abu Shamaleh, commander of southern Gaza; Marwan Issa, a Deif deputy; and Mohammed al Sanwar, commander of the town of Khan Younis.
Three of the seven biographies were accompanied by headshots, while three others posed with masks. No picture accompanied the entry of the shadowy Deif.
The operatives described in some detail how they planned attacks.
Issa, for example, said Hamas operatives would watch a targeted Israeli settlement for days or weeks. He said he always had more volunteers for suicide missions than he could dispatch, and that dozens of attacks were called off at the last minute for fear of failure.
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said Izzedine al Qassam was not revealing secrets. “They published what they assume the Israeli intelligence knows, to get credit from the Palestinian public,” he said.