By Ehud Ya’ari
As last month’s fighting continued in Gaza, important changes took place in Hamas – changes that are having a powerful effect now that the war has ended. Of course, Hamas leaders have crowned themselves with the victors’ laurels and tried to sell a tale of success. But they were hard-pressed to find buyers for their stories.
In the Arab world, an atmosphere of scepticism about Hamas’ claims of achievements on the battlefield prevailed, since, for the most part, these claims have turned out to be little more than transparent lies.
The growing criticism was best expressed on the important Arabic electronic newspaper Elaph by Abd al-Fattah Shehadeh, who wrote on Jan. 9 that Hamas is hiding behind the civilian population instead of defending it, as it had promised. Hamas, wrote Shehadeh, dug bunkers and tunnels, instead of building shelters for the residents of Gaza.
They brought catastrophe upon the Palestinians with the misguided calculation they had learned from Hezbollah: “They turned houses and mosques into battlegrounds so that the people would protect them and those who trusted them now regret it.”
In this climate, it’s no wonder that a senior Hamas leader in Damascus, Muhamad Nazzal, has twice threatened to walk out of live broadcasts on Arab TV networks because the scathing questions posed to him were not to his liking. In one incident, Nazzal found it necessary to deny that Gazans had shown resentment against Hamas – a rare, if indirect, admission that a deep rift has opened up between Hamas and its constituency.
The simple fact is that Hamas did not fight in the areas penetrated by the IDF, even though its defensive doctrine – drawn up under Iranian supervision with the assistance of Hezbollah – is based on an attempt to stop the IDF’s infantry brigades outside of Gaza City, or at least to detain them.
Hamas abandoned the heart of “Qassamland” – the areas surrounding Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and Atatra – almost without resistance. The offensive array of bunkers and tunnels, booby-trapped buildings prepared for detonation from afar, and all the other tricks adopted by Hamas were captured intact. From the perspective of the people of Gaza, Hamas simply abandoned the arena and fled into the crowded neighbourhoods.
Once there, from the second day of the campaign, Hamas fighters hurriedly shed their uniforms. Many of them simply deserted and returned to their families, taking their guns with them. In some locations, Hamas prevented civilians from leaving neighbourhoods that were in the line of fire; overall, it invested great effort in blocking civilians who wished to flee to the south of the Strip.
Hamas forcefully appropriated international aid deliveries, hijacked ambulances in order to move from one location to another, and carried out public executions of Fatah activists. In many cases, Hamas fighters showed “forgiveness” and made do with shooting the Fatah men in the legs.
All of this was going on while the entire political leadership of Hamas was hiding in the basements of hospitals such as Shifa in Gaza City or Kamal Adwan near Beit Lahiya.
Sporadically, they released videos from their places of hiding. The rather pathetic impression they created is that of a leadership that abandoned its population and was busy trying to save its own skin.
The same goes for the military leadership. The entire command of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades went into hiding, leaving only rocket crews to continue firing according to pre-prepared plans, to the extent that they were able to do so. Gradually, the signs of distress became evident here too, due to Israel’s accurate hits from the air and sea and tank fire on the rocket launchers.
Voices began to emerge from within Hamas – in particular from activists in the West Bank, but also from Gaza – contending that the movement’s military wing not only carried out a putsch in June 2007 when it captured the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority, but did the same thing within the movement as well, taking over the decision-making process in the political wing of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.
These critics contend that the organisation thus dragged the Strip into a premature and hopeless military conflict.
More than once, I have heard from sources close to Hamas that the situation in Gaza is similar to the disaster that befell the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, when its military wing, led by Marwan Hadid, instigated an insurrection in Syria without the authorisation of the spiritual leadership. This resulted in the massacre carried out by then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the town of Hamma and the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood detainees at the Tadmor Prison.
To this day, in internal Muslim Brotherhood discourse, the “Hamma Affair” is seen as the classic example of how not to do things. The case of Gaza may well take its place in the same bracket.
What we have seen thus far during the fighting is a transformation of Hamas from a government to an underground body, from a popular mass movement to a loose group of armed gangs. This situation will not necessarily continue for a long time, but its memory will not be easily erased.
Hamas has the ability to rehabilitate itself and this should not be taken lightly. But this time it will be hard to mollify Palestinian public opinion. There is no enthusiasm for Hamas’ period in power; its fighting prowess has hardly inspired awe, and there is no longer any faith in its leaders.
Ehud Ya’ari is the Arab Affairs reporter for Israel’s Channel 2 television station, a contributing editor to the Jerusalem Report, and the author of several books on Middle Eastern history and politics. © Jerusalem Report, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.