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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Raid: Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar spoke after Israel killed 17 Tuesday, including his son.
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    Counterattack: Israeli troops, near Karni Crossing, on Tuesday launched a raid in the Gaza strip that killed 17 Palestinians and wounded 45. Hamas responded with rocket attacks on Israel – the first it has formally claimed since the summer.
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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.

"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.

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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.

Entrenched position

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.

Zahar says Mr. Ghoul was arrested because he was threatening to have the salaries of government workers withheld if they reported to work, and because of ties to what he says has been a campaign of market bombings carried out by Fatah. Fatah says Ghoul had simply come to Gaza for his mother's funeral. Zahar says other Fatah officials have been arrested for corruption. "No one is arrested for his political beliefs, but for their crimes," Zahar said.

More commonly, police loyal to Hamas arrest Fatah activists for a day or two, a form of intimidation, Fatah alleges. "I haven't slept at home for three days because they're looking for me," says one Fatah activist. "We have very little room to operate here."

Tuesday's Israeli attack inside Gaza was the most serious in months. In addition to leaving 17 people dead – three of them civilians – 45 Palestinians were wounded. Concerns rose about a major Israeli assault on the territory, something some senior Israeli commanders have been pushing for.

"We will suffer a little bit more and more [from Kassam attacks], and eventually, there will be a large Israeli operation in Gaza," said Maj. Gen. (res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, a Kadima member of Knesset and a missile expert.

He pointed to a recent launching of a longer-range rocket on Ashkelon as an indication that a more substantive Israeli military assault may be forthcoming. "Once they will continue launching rockets on Ashkelon, no Israeli prime minister will be able to stop the Israeli operation in Gaza we've talked about," Dr. Ben-Israel said.

Though most of the dead were gunmen, such attacks typically bolster support for Hamas. Even Abbas, a diehard enemy of Hamas who has asked Israel to hold its fire to give peace talks a chance, expressed outrage.

"There was a massacre today against our people, and we say to the world that our people will not remain silent against such crimes," Abbas said. A statement by his government said the attack was "a slap in the face" to the recent peace push. Israeli President Shimon Peres defended the attack, saying "we are left without a choice" in the face of rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas: 'We're ready'

If Israel decides on a broader offensive, Zahar and other Hamas officials say they're ready. A senior commander in the Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, says that his men have been building and stockpiling rockets, planting homemade bombs in the territory, and otherwise preparing for an assault.

"If they come, a lot of damage will be done to us, but we're going to make sure losses will be heavy on their side, too," says the militant. "They say it's about the rocket fire, but that's not it. The Israeli project is to have a disarmed Palestinian Authority, one they can fully control."

In his interview with the Monitor, Zahar said Hamas was still willing to negotiate with Israel through intermediaries on a prisoner swap for Israel soldier Gilad Shalit, seized in June 2006. His group is demanding more than 1,000 Palestinian militants held by Israel.

"We think we're being very reasonable; most of the people we're asking for have served 15 years in prison. But they say they won't release anyone with blood on their hands. Well, [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert has blood on his hands and blood in his pockets. We all have blood on our hands," said Zahar, who is Hamas's sole surviving founder.

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