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In Gaza, rise of Hamas military wing complicates reconciliation with Fatah

The rising clout of Al Qassam in Gaza dims prospects for mending the Hamas-Fatah rift. Reconciliation talks are slated to start Nov. 9.

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The Egyptian document also calls for dissolving militias – understood to include Al Qassam – and incorporating them into the security apparatus. Dissolving the force that is considered the resistance against the Israeli occupation is out of the question for most Palestinians, not to mention for Al Qassam itself.

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Qassam seen as more powerful than Gaza's Hamas government

Al Qassam militants, whose role in fighting Israel during the 2009 Gaza war added to the clout they'd gained two years earlier, are perceived as being more powerful than the Hamas-run government.

Hamas security forces are largely drawn from Al Qassam members – Abu Khaled says two-thirds of Hamas policemen are police by day and Al Qassam by night. Many Hamas government leaders are former or current Al Qassam members, or have sons in the armed brigades.

Many in Gaza tell stories of jailed Al Qassam militants who are sprung overnight by their comrades, with the police unable or unwilling to intervene. Some accuse members of the brigades of burning down Crazy Water, a restaurant and water park accused of having looser social strictures.

"All the government, especially the security apparatuses, are derived from Al Qassam," says Abu Mohamed, the leader of the cell in the Jabaliya refugee camp. "They belong to Al Qassam."

That sense of ownership is firm. If reconciliation were to happen, says Abu Mohamed as he idly pulls his pistol from his waistband and sets it on the floor, "Fatah must be under [Hamas] control in Gaza. We must control Gaza."

Talks conducted by Hamas political leaders

The reconciliation talks are conducted by the Syria-based political leadership of the Hamas movement, however, not the Gaza government. Al Qassam leaders stress that they have sworn allegiance to the leadership and will obey its orders. They are confident, however, that those orders will not include reconciliation.

Ahmed Yousef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, dismisses such talk with a wave of his hand. "They respect their political leaders and they abide by the regulations, and they are restricted to what the political leaders are telling them," he says. "Those guys are smelling guns and bullets all the time. Don't count on what they say. The people who will decide are the politicians."

Dr. Yousef says the time is ripe for reconciliation, and the two sides will find a way to agree on restructuring the security apparatus. But distrust runs deep.

Early in October, Al Qassam leaders in Gaza held a press conference to denounce the PA's arrest of militants in the West Bank and threatened to retaliate against Fatah members in Gaza. "How could Palestinian reconciliation succeed if we still hear this language of threatening and incitement?" asks Mr. Abusada.