Battle for Gaza: Hamas Jumped, Provoked and Pushed

Hamas’ swift victory in the June 2007 battle of Gaza was a stunning defeat for American interests in the Middle East. Hamas, an organization the United States has blackballed for 20 years, took control of 1.4 million Palestinians in less than a week, humiliating not only the US-backed Fateh but also the US-created coalition of Israel, Egypt and Jordan that had been training and equipping Fateh to defeat Hamas.

Hamas’ victory was clearly well planned and executed. According to accounts from Hamas commanders, the planning for the takeover had been underway for months. Certainly some of the preparations, like the digging of a 220 meter tunnel under Fateh’s Khan Yunis headquarters to blow it up, must have taken considerable time. Hamas had carefully built up its arsenal to include new weapons like mortars to gain battlefield advantage. Hamas used the tactics it had developed against the IDF to defeat its Arab enemy with speed and precision. No doubt it was helped by considerable advance penetration of the corrupt Fateh security apparatus.

At least some of the fighters in Hamas jumped at the chance to humiliate Fateh and especially Mohammad Dahlan, whom they saw as collaborators with the Israelis akin to the old South Lebanon Army. The military apparatus of Hamas was never very enthusiastic about the February Mecca agreement and was quick to argue that Fateh, Israel and America were subverting its outcome. Hamas military commanders have said they were surprised at the ease of their victory; but those who argued against Mecca from the beginning were eager to take on Fateh.

Yet Hamas was also deliberately provoked both strategically and tactically. The US and Israel made no secret of their doubts about the Saudi deal and of their efforts to train and equip the PA and Fateh to crush Hamas. American General Keith Dayton was clearly trying to build a force to overcome Hamas with help from Egypt and Jordan and with tacit Israeli approval. The allies just underestimated Hamas, and not for the first time. The attempt to kill the imam of the largest mosque in Gaza provided an immediate spark for a battle that was long coming.

And Hamas was also pushed to act by at least two outside parties. Iran saw the Mecca deal for what it was: a calculated Saudi attempt to contain and then reverse Iranian influence in the Palestinian movement. Palestinian politics have been a central political battlefield in inter-Arab politics for decades and could not be allowed to fall under Shi’ite influence. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security along with their Hizballah partners have been training key Hamas officers for years and would have had every reason to encourage them to thwart King Abdullah’s Mecca accord and the danger it represented to their interests. It is likely the IRGC and MOIS helped with the military planning and may have expanded their presence in Gaza since June.

Al-Qaeda also made abundantly clear its opposition to the Mecca agreement and used its position at the center of the global Sunni jihadist movement to encourage Hamas to repudiate it and to kill Dahlan in particular. Last March, Qaeda’s key ideologue Ayman Zawahri was particularly harsh in condemning Hamas’ deal with Fateh in Mecca. Zawahri said the Hamas political leadership had “sold out” to the Saudi monarch: “I am sorry to have to offer the Islamic nation my condolences for the virtual demise of the Hamas leadership as it has fallen into the quagmire of surrender.” In May he repeated these charges. Hamas responded by saying, “we are a movement of Jihad and of resistance. We in the Hamas movement remain loyal to our positions and we assure Dr. al-Zawahri and all those who remain unwavering in their attachment to Palestine that today’s Hamas is the same Hamas you have known since its founding.” After the coup, Zawahri was quick to signal his support for it and to urge all Muslims to help defend Gaza, while still repeating his concerns about the Hamas political leadership’s “collaborationist” tendencies.

So a heady mix of Hamas firebrands eager for war, the barely concealed American and Israeli desire to reverse the results of the 2006 elections and pressure from both the Shi’ite and Sunni global jihadist centers created the explosive mix last June. Finally, of course, there was also the incompetence of the Fateh leadership. How much each factor alone counted is impossible to know; the combination is what mattered. The question now is, will Hamas be able to exploit its posture as the “real” voice of Palestine to undermine a “quisling” Fateh in the West Bank, where it is even more dependent on Israeli and US support and especially IDF bayonets to survive?