Gaza strike hardens Hamas position
In an interview, key Hamas strategist Mahmoud Zahar discusses how his movement has been preparing for a potentially imminent Israeli assault on Gaza.
Gaza City, Gaza
Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader widely seen as the strategic mind behind the Islamist movement's successful takeover of the Gaza Strip last summer, struck a defiant tone when asked in an interview last week how long he thinks Hamas can maintain control in the face of an economic blockade and Israeli pressure.Skip to next paragraph
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"We have hard minds and hard wills. After we took control, Fatah and the Israelis thought we'd collapse within three months," he said. "All they are doing – the Americans, the Israelis – is intensifying hatred against them, while we are solidifying our position."
On Tuesday, the resolve of Mr. Zahar and his colleagues, who President George Bush, on a trip to Israel and the West Bank last week, insisted must be removed from power, was tested again: Israeli tanks and helicopters moved on militant positions in the territory, killing 17 Palestinians – among them Zahar's 24-year-old son, Hassam. Zahar's eldest son was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2003.
Hamas responded swiftly, firing a volley of mortars and at least one rocket, which landed in the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Though there were no casualties, and rocket fire from Gaza by groups like Islamic Jihad has been common in recent months, they were the first attacks formally claimed by Hamas since last summer.
The movement's increasingly entrenched position was the rhinoceros in the corner during President Bush's trip to the region.
Though the US is fostering a renewed dialogue between Fatah and Israel, which Bush said he expects to lead to a new peace deal by the end of this year, both he and Israel have made it clear that if Gaza-based attacks on Israel don't stop, Israel won't take concrete steps toward removing illegal settlements and outposts in the West Bank that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas controls.
Ahead of his meeting with Mr. Abbas in the West Bank, Bush said, "As to the rockets, my first question to President Abbas is going to be: What are you doing about them?" His remark drew laughs from Hamas leaders in Gaza and anger from remaining Fatah representatives.
"Bush looked like an idiot," says Gaza-based Fatah leader Karim Ahmed. "We have to stop the rockets before he can deliver results? Has he been paying attention to what's happening here?"
Abbas today has no power in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas is opposed to his dialogue with Israel, accusing Abbas of selling out Palestinian interests with the aim of maintaining international support.
While the restrictions on all but humanitarian food and medical shipments into the territory by Israel have crippled the economy – 90 percent of the factories in Gaza have shut down, putting about 30,000 out of work – Hamas has managed to keep money flowing in from outside to pay government workers and soldiers loyal to them.
Meanwhile, what was left of Fatah's political infrastructure after Hamas overpowered Fatah's Gaza security forces in June has been systematically weakened. A number of Fatah activists have been arrested by Hamas, most notably Omar al-Ghoul, a senior adviser to Fatah Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in December.