Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
On August 31, on the evening before new U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian National Authority (PNA) peace talks were set to begin, a drive-by shooting near the West Bank city of Hebron killed four Israeli settlers traveling on the highway near the settlement of Kiryat Arba. The attack was roundly condemned by Israeli, U.S., and PNA officials including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and PNA president Mahmoud Abbas. Senior Lebanon-based HAMAS spokesman Osama Hamdan denied that the movement had planned attacks aimed at sabotaging the new round of negotiations. Despite his denial, HAMAS’ military wing, the Brigades of the Martyr ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam (hereafter the Qassam Brigades), issued an official statement claiming responsibility for the attack the same day. Its senior Gaza-based spokesman Abu ‘Ubayda also claimed responsibility. A day later, Israeli settlers near Hebron threw rocks at Palestinian civilians and attempted to light a Palestinian-owned field on fire in retaliation for the attack.
After years of U.S. and Israeli attempts to sideline and even ignore HAMAS, the premier Palestinian Islamist movement once again showed that it could play the role of spoiler in ongoing Israeli-PNA peace negotiations. In its rhetoric following the Hebron attack and a subsequent shooting attack near the West Bank city of Ramallah, HAMAS military wing clearly relished this role and vowed to continue on the “path of resistance” against the ongoing Israeli military occupation and blockading of the Palestinian Territories. The group also faces internal pressures from small but disproportionately influential transnational jihadi–takfiri groups operating in the Gaza Strip, pressures that may also be influencing HAMAS’ decision to launch a new military campaign.
In its statement about the August 31 attack, the Qassam Brigades said that it claimed “full responsibility for this heroic operation” that targeted the “Zionist usurpers of the beloved land of Palestine.” The attack was launched, the statement said, in retaliation for ongoing Israeli persecution of the Palestinian people through arbitrary and targeted arrests, military strikes, assassinations of Palestinian leaders, and the “Judaizing” of the contested city of Jerusalem. HAMAS’ attack was a “natural response” to the “crimes of the Zionist occupation.” In a dig at its chief political rival, Abbas’ Fatah party, which it accuses of selling out Palestinian rights in the pursuit of political power and money, the HAMAS statement said that “the heroes of the Qassam Brigades are at the helm of the resistance struggle in every field.” HAMAS has continued to criticize Fatah for serving as a “collaborator” with Israel in a series of articles published by its official media organs.
HAMAS spokesman Abu ‘Ubayda reiterated that the attack near Hebron was, “a natural response to the crimes of the occupation that affect our people in the occupied West Bank, a natural response to the Zionists who have targeted mosques and shrines.” He claimed that the attack’s “first message” was that “resistance to the occupation remains a viable option” and said that the Qassam Brigades “can strike at the time and place of our choice.” Finally, he said that the attack was not an isolated event but was launched in the context of an ongoing military campaign.
True to Abu ‘Ubayda’s word, the Qassam Brigades carried out a second shooting attack a day later around 11 p.m. on September 1 near the Israeli settlement of Kochav Hashachar located outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah, wounding two Israelis. In its official statement, the HAMAS military wing announced that the second attack was part of a new military campaign, which it dubbed the “Torrent of Fire” campaign. For several days, a flashy piece of graphic art of a camouflaged Qassam Brigades’ fighter surrounded by flames was featured prominently as the introductory screen to the military wing’s web site. The second attack was aimed, the statement said, at humbling the “arrogance of the occupation” and in retaliation for its “crimes.” The Qassam Brigades’ promised its “courageous people in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora” that “this attack will not be the last, with the Zionists in a panic, we will strike them where they least expect it.”
The Qassam Brigades’ decision to launch its new military campaign in the West Bank was a significant and clear-cut challenge to the authority of the Fatah-dominated PNA and, more precisely, the personal authority of Abbas. PNA security forces have reportedly arrested suspects in the second attack, though its officials had on September 4 been ambiguous as to whether or not anyone had been taken into custody. On September 3, HAMAS spokesman Abu ‘Ubayda held a press conference in Gaza City and demanded that Fatah’s security forces and affiliated militias stop their “vicious campaign of kidnappings carried out against innocent Palestinians” in the West Bank. An official HAMAS statement ominously warned Fatah to “learn from what happened in Gaza” before “it is too late,” referring to the brief but brutal war between HAMAS and Fatah over control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, a civil conflict that Fatah lost.
HAMAS faces internal pressures in the Gaza Strip that may have also influenced its recent decision to launch a new campaign of “military resistance.” The steady growth of small transnational jihadi–takfiri groups in Gaza presents HAMAS with a new set of potential challengers for “Islamic” political legitimacy and the mantle of armed resistance. Small jihadi–takfiri groups such as Jund Ansar Allah, Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l Jihad (Group of Absolute Monotheism and Struggle), and Ansar al-Sunna in Bayt al-Maqdis (Palestine, literally “Jerusalem”) continue to sporadically launch mortar shells and primitive homemade rockets into Israel, despite HAMAS prohibitions and attempts to halt such independent attacks. The Israeli military has retaliated for these attacks by targeting HAMAS positions and offices in Gaza. In their media and official statements, the small Gaza-based jihadi–takfiri groups have blasted HAMAS for “violently suppressing the mujahideen (warriors of faith)” and “abandoning the path of struggle (jihad) and resistance.” HAMAS’ defense of its record as a “religious-nationalist resistance” movement coupled with its military wing’s statements on its ongoing “Torrent of Fire” campaign raise the possibility that the movement’s decision to launch a new military campaign is, at least in part, a case of outbidding in which the movement is attempting to ward off criticisms of “selling out.”
The recent HAMAS attacks were, in effect, carried out in Abbas’ “backyard,” bolstering the continued questioning of the limits of his authority in the Palestinian social and political milieu as well as the legitimacy of the new negotiations to truly result in a “final status” peace agreement. The attacks also raised questions about the viability of, for all intents and purposes, completely ignoring HAMAS, which is, with Fatah, one of the two largest Palestinian socio-political factions. Although Fatah certainly commands a significant level of support among the Palestinian public, it is a serious mistake to discount the significant amount of support that HAMAS also enjoys, despite growing criticisms from its misgovernance in Gaza. HAMAS’ power and influence is nowhere more clear than it its ability to potentially act as spoiler in peace negotiations. Far from being an irrational, blindly ideological actor, HAMAS has historically made decisions on the basis of political pragmatism and calculation. In the latest round of negotiations, in which HAMAS has effectively been ignored, the movement has little incentive to serve as anything but a spoiler.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.