Recruiting and building rockets, Hamas determined to retain Gaza grip

The Islamists were sidelined from the Cairo rehabilitation conference, but they don’t intend to be dislodged from the Strip

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at Haniyeh's house in Gaza City, October 9, 2014.(AFP/Said Khatib)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at Haniyeh's house in Gaza City, October 9, 2014.(AFP/Said Khatib)

On Tuesday, the first supplies of building materials for the reconstruction of Gaza entered the Strip as part of an agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority (and Hamas), and the United Nations. The ambitious and closely monitored program to rehabilitate the Strip has begun.

According to this plan, reconstruction may take years — possibly even a decade. For now, not much has changed in the Palestinian enclave, and nothing significant is likely to change any time soon.

Things are as they were: Poverty, desperation, extremism and tens of thousands of displaced people. The sea is the same sea, and Hamas is the same Hamas, with the same aspirations.

There is one major difference, though: Hamas is poorer. Without the income from the Gaza-Egypt tunnels, and having stopped collecting taxes, its funds are dwindling. While the PA will oversee the actual reconstruction of the Strip, Hamas’s top priority is the reestablishment of its internal infrastructure — including its financial infrastructure.

This will be no simple task. While the group is not bankrupt yet, it is in the midst of a budgetary crisis, and is forced to beg for funds from the Arab world. At present, to some degree, this strategy is working. Hamas is managing to pay the salaries of members of its military wing thanks largely to donations from Qatar, Turkey and businessmen from the Gulf States, funneled into the Strip via the handful of Egypt-Gaza tunnels still functioning. (The UN has established a mechanism to pay the salaries of Hamas civil servants via donations.)

Hamas’s financial plight stems in part from it being sidelined when it comes to the reconstruction of Gaza. It wasn’t only Israel that was excluded from the “Rehabilitation of Gaza” conference in Cairo on Sunday; Hamas representatives were also absent. Only the Palestinian Authority sent a delegation, according to the instructions of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Some of the same Gaza officials who greeted PA Prime Minister Hamdallah in the morning attended a Hamas military brigades’ rally in the afternoon — a rally intended to convey a clear message: the ‘resistance’ is not about to disarm

Hamas had no choice but to let PA President Mahmoud Abbas take the public credit for raising the approximately 5.4 billion in promised aid, most of which is intended for the Gaza Strip. And Hamas has stated that the Palestinian unity government will oversee the reconstruction of Gaza.

As always, however, the reality is more complicated. Hamas has lowered its profile, but financial problems or not, it has no intention of relinquishing practical control over the strip. Gaza’s government and social services will formally be run by the Abbas-led administration, but Hamas is not going anywhere. Its police and military hierarchies will continue to operate throughout Gaza, and Abbas’s PA security forces will not, except perhaps at the border crossings.

Furthermore, despite those budgetary constraints, Hamas is already busily is trying to revive its military industry. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge on August 26, it has managed to conduct a series of rocket tests into the Mediterranean, underlining that a new line of rockets is being produced. It is not clear whether the tests have been successful.

Hamas is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that it is having trouble obtaining the dual-use materials it uses to manufacture rockets, and some of the machinery and chemicals that are needed for the process. Still, it has proved its resourcefulness in the past.

Meanwhile, the Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has launched a recruitment drive. Last Thursday, the very day that the “national reconciliation government” held its much-hyped first meeting in Gaza, the brigades held a large military parade in Shejaiya. Some of the same officials who greeted PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the morning attended the brigades’ rally in the afternoon — a rally intended to convey a clear message to the residents of Gaza: the “resistance” is not about to disarm.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a press conference at the Gaza donor conference in Cairo, Egypt, on October 12, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Khaled Desouki)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a press conference at the Gaza donor conference in Cairo, Egypt, on October 12, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Khaled Desouki)

It was almost comical to see UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking in Tuesday from Gaza about building a “unified Palestine.” He apparently has not internalized the hollow nature of the unity talk.

The reconstruction of the military wing is being overseen by those commanders who survived Operation Protective Edge, notably Marwan Issa and Mohammed Sanwar. Mohammed Deif is apparently out of the picture, whether alive or dead. Issa and his colleagues are trying to find worthy substitutes for the group’s southern region commanders, Raed Al-Attar and Mohammed Abu Himalaya, who were killed by Israel toward the end of the operation.

The balance of power between the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the Hamas political leadership remains as it was during the war. Some figures stepped up during the fighting, and continue to take part in Hamas decision making. Apart from Khaled Mashaal in Qatar and his deputy Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, the generation of leaders who have grown up in Israeli prisons have been making their voices heard — people like Salah al-Aruri in Turkey, Yahya Sanwar (Mohammed’s brother) and Rawhi Mushtaha in Gaza — as have some who are still imprisoned, including Jamal Abu al-Hija, Hassan Yousef, and Mohammed Jamal Natsha. The war, and astute use of Twitter and Facebook, also highlighted a new layer of leadership abroad, including Muhammad Nasr, Izzat al-Rishak and Osama Hamdan.

And so Gaza remains the same bleak Gaza, and Hamas anticipates maintaining its grip. Yet the PA, because of its oversight role in economic rehabilitation, will be hoping to change that.

The enthusiastic reception accorded Hamdallah during his visits to Beit Hanoun and Shejaiya seemed authentic. The Gaza public wants change, and seeks reasons for optimism. Sidelined from the reconstruction process, is it wishful thinking to believe Hamas just might be gradually sidelined in Gazan public opinion as well?

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