Militant Hamas as reluctant moderator

Can Gaza's ruling militants keep other armed groups from spoiling a six-month cease-fire with Israel intended to improve life in the impoverished coastal strip?

Ashraf Amra/AP
Islamic Jihad: Members of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad seen in the Gaza Strip on June 19, the day an Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Israel truce went into effect.

Hamas, which for more than 20 years has been the Palestinian militant movement that most fervently rejected peace with Israel, today finds itself in the odd position of being the group trying to get its comrades in arms to hold their fire against the Jewish state.

But the week-old truce – agreed upon between Israel and Hamas and contingent on Gaza's disparate armed factions keeping their guns quiet – looked closer to crumbling Thursday after militants again fired rockets into southern Israel. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade struck Thursday two days after an attack by another group, Islamic Jihad.

In response, Israel has kept its crossings with the Gaza Strip shut, which it had opened to allow in much-needed goods, indicating that both sides were reneging on promises made in the Egyptian-brokered deal.

Late Wednesday night, leading Hamas official Siad Siyam gathered members of all the different militant factions at the Interior Ministry in Gaza, Palestinian sources say, and tried to impress upon them the need to keep the truce – or face more serious consequences.

But it's unclear just how far Hamas can – or will – go to stop the rockets from flying over the border and maintain the shaky truce, which skeptics on both sides say will soon unravel.

While Hamas says it is committed to the cease-fire, it will not act as a "police force" or otherwise stand in the way of other militant groups from acting against Israel. In a statement after Islamic Jihad's rockets fell on Israel – hours after a series of Israeli offensives in the West Bank – Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya said that Hamas would not act as enforcer.

"Even if there is a violation by some factions, Hamas emphasizes its commitment to the calm and is working to implement the calm," said Mr. Haya, according to the Associated Press. "But Hamas is not going to be a police securing the border of the occupation," he added. "No one will enjoy a happy moment seeing Hamas holding a rifle in the face of a resistance fighter."

After Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, broke the cease-fire with two rockets fired at Sderot, the group said the cease-fire must also include the West Bank.

"Any deal for calm must end Israeli attacks on our people in the West Bank, too," said Abu Qusai, spokesman for Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official, acknowledges that some of the other militant groups in Gaza do not want to take marching orders from Hamas, and want to scuttle the cease-fire deal that has been months in the making, with the help of Egyptian mediation.

"There are some groups who are not interested now in keeping the situation quiet. But this calm is in the interest of the Palestinian people and in the national consensus," says Mr. Hamad in an interview from Gaza.

Islamic Jihad takes a strictly militant line on the conflict and does not believe in participating in any of the political processes that have grown out of negotiations with Israel – including running candidates for office in the Palestinian Authority (PA), since its very creation was a product of the Oslo Accords.

The organization maintains its independence from Hamas, but has also expressed a willingness to cooperate with it in the truce and in other matters. The group's spokesman says that its rocket launches this week were in response to the Israeli army's assassination of an Islamic Jihad leader in Nablus, in the West Bank. The cease-fire deal did not include the West Bank.

"We will not be the obstacle: What happened was an exceptional message because of the assassination," says Daoud Shihab, a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. "But we believe the Israelis will never respect this agreement anyway. Part of the deal is opening the crossings, and they haven't done so."

He said that Islamic Jihad sees the cease-fire as a chance for a "breather," and for people to gird themselves for the next confrontations.

"We are not optimistic that the cease-fire will last a long time," Mr. Shihab added. "We want people to start breathing again. We know that the battle with Israel has not finished. We want people to be able to get ready, to buy food, to prepare for the bigger battle that will surely be with the Israelis later on."

Historically, it was usually Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, that favored resistance over reconciliation and often chose key moments of agreement between Israel and Fatah to launch attacks. Once an underground organization at loggerheads with the PA, founded and run by the secular Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas today is the authority in Gaza and not exactly relishing the job of reining in other militants.

"I'm against firing now, especially after signing the [deal with Israel along] with all the Palestinians factions. Some people are trying to keep the collective punishment and the bad situation as it is," says Hamas official Hamad, referring to Israel's severe restrictions on fuel and goods going into Gaza.

"There was an agreement of all the Palestinian factions to keep the truce in Gaza," he adds. "We don't accept that they come and say this is a reaction for the Israeli crimes in the West Bank. We have to act together, not on the wishes of each individual faction. This only create more troubles for us, and we must deal seriously with the violations of the agreement."

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City, Gaza, contributed to this report.

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