When Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s political wing, was interviewed on the France 24 television channel this week, his statements about a possible escalation in Gaza were unequivocal. “Hamas is not seeking war [with Israel]. We are eager to avoid it,” he said. He added that while Iran had supported Hamas in the past, it had reduced its assistance since Hamas came out openly against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Currently, Mashaal said, Hamas was working to develop additional funding sources.

So he said — but plenty of people in the Gaza Strip were none too bothered. Although Mashaal supposedly still holds the highest position in Hamas, his status as the organization’s top leader does not seem as strong as in past years. He is no longer the sole decision-maker in Hamas, certainly not when it comes to the Gaza Strip.

As The Times of Israel reported in December, a new leader by the name of Yahya Sinwar has emerged in the Strip. A charismatic man, Sinwar is leading an intensifying challenge to Mashaal’s leadership and to Hamas’s senior echelons abroad. While Mashaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad, stays in luxury hotels in the Gulf states and meets with world leaders such as the president of Turkey, Sinwar lives in the Khan Younis refugee camp and is seen as the champion of the oppressed, suffering alongside them.

Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)

Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)

Sinwar spent 22 years in Israel’s prisons until he was released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. A man who avoids the limelight, he is considered a radical hardliner who inspires the loyalty of the leadership of Hamas’s military wing.

The clash between Mashaal and Sinwar is at the heart of a growing rift between Hamas’s “Gazans” and the “ones abroad.” The resolution of issues such as Hamas’s reconciliation with Fatah, its relations with Egypt and its own broad strategy hinges on the result.

Oil and water

To begin to understand the clash, a good place to start is with the natural competition between the West Bank and Gaza — not just inside Hamas but within Palestinian society.

It is no secret that the inhabitants of the West Bank look down on the Gazans. This was even more the case in Hamas after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004 and the elimination of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi a few weeks later. Hamas had lost its two most prominent leaders in Gaza.

A Palestinian boy rides his bike past graffiti depicting (from L to R) late founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) George Habash, late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, on November 21, 2014 in Gaza City. (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

A Palestinian boy rides his bike past graffiti depicting (from L to R) late founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) George Habash, late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, on November 21, 2014 in Gaza City. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

Still, many of their counterparts in the West Bank were either imprisoned in Israel or had been assassinated, so the killing of Yassin and al-Rantisi marked the beginning of a “golden age” for Hamas’s leadership abroad. Ex-West Banker Mashaal and other “exiles” like his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk were considered the highest-ranking and most important people in Hamas everywhere, including in Gaza, and the military wing took its orders from them. Even when Hamas’s Gaza terror chief Muhammad Deif and, later on, Ahmed Jabari began rising to prominence, there was still no doubt as to who gave the orders.

Sinwar’s release from prison wrought a change in the structure of the entire leadership. Sinwar began asserting himself as Hamas’s Number One man in Gaza: One of the founders of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam military brigades, he had tried to scuttle the Shalit deal, even though it wound up securing his freedom after 22 years, because he felt it made too many concessions. That helped him solidify the respect of all Hamas’s members.

Sinwar has worked to change Hamas’s priorities. For him, Gaza is not a stepping-stone in a wider strategy of taking over the West Bank and the PLO, as it is for Mashaal. Rather, Gaza is a separate and sanctified goal: the first and only entity where the Muslim Brotherhood’s doctrine held sway. The members of the political bureau abroad see a takeover of the entire Palestinian leadership as an end that justifies any means, including concessions in Gaza if required. Not so, for Sinwar.

Another strategic issue on which the two camps are divided has to do with the clash of civilizations in the Middle East and the fight between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. While Mashaal and his group made clear their reservations regarding the “Shi’ite axis” as far back as 2011, Sinwar and his comrades in the Gaza military wing refused to part ways with their friends in Tehran and Damascus.

Mashaal tried several times to draw close to Saudi Arabia and even visited there. But the members of the military wing, led by Deif and with Sinwar above him, kept in close contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force and continued to receive funding through various channels.

But Mashaal’s all-too-overt support of Riyadh, together with his firm opposition to the Houthis’ activity in Yemen, led to a significant cutback in Iranian aid to the Gaza Strip (at least for the military wing).

The Mashaal-Sinwar disagreement is also evident regarding relations with the Egyptians.

Egypt's prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat (YouTube screenshot/teleSUR English)

Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat (YouTube screenshot/teleSUR English)

A Hamas delegation, including Abu Marzouk, visited Cairo this week and met with heads of Egyptian intelligence (the Mukhabarat), which is trying to court the leaders of the political wing, in Gaza and abroad, to counter the actions of Sinwar and the military wing. Evidence presented to members of the delegation that Hamas activists trained the assassins of Egypt’s prosecutor general astonished them.

Plainly, the military wing is pursuing, under their very noses, an independent policy regarding relations with Islamic State personnel in Egypt. Transferring wounded members of IS in Sinai for medical treatment in the Gaza Strip, digging tunnels into Egypt, moving arms and ammunition to Sinai, and training Islamic State fighters — all these activities are taking place as an organized project of the military wing, with the knowledge of Yahya Sinwar, but without the consent of the members of the political wing in Gaza, and certainly without the consent of Mashaal in Qatar.

Mashaal has urged his fellow Hamas members to stop all smuggling from the Gaza Strip to Sinai and sever all contact with Islamic State. But Gaza has needs of its own, and he has been ignored. Officials of the military wing have decided to keep communication channels with Islamic State open because the smuggling of arms and funds to and from Sinai is deemed so important.

The “ideological” disputes are causing practical difficulties regarding the way Hamas should be run. It’s not always clear exactly who is making the decisions: Is it Ismail Haniyeh or Mahmoud a-Zahar, both of whom are considered senior members of the political wing in Gaza? Is it Mashaal and Abu Marzouk, who live abroad? Or are Sinwar and Deif now the ones in charge?

One illustration of this confusion is last month’s execution of Mahmoud Eshtawi, who had been considered the battalion commander of Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, on charges of collaborating with Israel. Eshtawi, a prominent member of Hamas’s military wing, came from a family with deep roots in the organization. The decision to execute him aroused a great deal of anger among Hamas supporters, and it’s still not clear whose decision it was: the political wing, Sinwar and Deif, both?

Palestinian members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, seen near the body of Marwan Maarouf, 27, during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 9, 2016. Maarouf was killed when a tunnel collapsed in the Gaza Strip. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, seen near the body of Marwan Maarouf, 27, during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 9, 2016. Maarouf was killed when a tunnel collapsed in the Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Or take statements made by members of Hamas’s political wing after a series of tunnel collapses in recent weeks. A-Zahar gloatingly announced that Hamas was digging tunnels into Israel, but members of the military wing then took him to task, asking, in effect, where he got the authority to make such statements. He then claimed to have been misunderstood.

New elections for the Hamas political bureau are to be held over the coming year, and it is not clear whether Mashaal will be re-elected. The balance of power is tilting rapidly in favor of Gaza, and it is likely that Sinwar will want to be installed as head of the political wing or will select one of his close associates for the post.

For Sinwar, there is quite a bit of historical and social baggage here: He is the representative of the refugees and the prisoners — the underprivileged Gazans who have always been considered second-class. And while he and his close associates suffer in the dust of Gaza’s tunnels, it is galling for them to see others such as Mashaal — the far-seeing statesman born in the West Bank, the consummate politician who has never known the sound of gunfire or the stench of prison — live in luxury at Gaza’s expense and claim Gazans’ fealty.

Hamas is not about to fall apart, and the rifts are not unbridgeable. But for the next few months at least, Mashaal will likely keep on giving orders from Qatar, and the military wing and Sinwar will keep on ignoring them.