Monday, 5 April 2010

Confusion in the ranks

Following on closely from my last piece ("The Missing Link") comes news of a meeting last night between Hamas and the main Palestinian factions of the Gaza Strip. Their purpose – and this has the authority of Asharq Al-Awsat, the leading Arabic international daily newspaper behind it – was to discuss prospects for inter-Palestinian reconciliation, as well as a possible truce with Israel. The report does not, it might be added, appear in the English-language edition of the paper.

According to the Arab publication, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front all participated in the meeting. Notable absentees, although invitations had been issued and accepted, were representatives of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank. They appear to have backed out at the last minute.

Hamas spokesman, Ayman Taha, is reported to have described the meeting as the “first fruits” of a series of inter-Palestinian talks to resolve the situation in the Gaza Strip and lead to the removal of Israel's blockade. No mention was made of the equally severe blockade maintained by Egypt along its border with Gaza, involving the current erection of a steel barrier at the Rafah crossing in order to curtail the extensive smuggling of goods of all kinds, including weaponry, from Egypt into the Strip.

This meeting of non-Fatah Palestinian leaders to discuss a possible truce with Israel coincided with the launch of a rocket into the country from within Gaza. One can only speculate as to which group might have sent it on its way – perhaps a militant body too extreme to have been invited to the meeting. The rocket reportedly hit an open area outside a kibbutz in the Western Negev.

This tactical anomaly was not the only one to mark the occasion. Yesterday morning (Sunday) the spokesman of Islamic Jihad was interviewed on the movement's official radio station. He told listeners that the group had stopped firing rockets into Israel because of the need to lift the Gaza blockade and alleviate the Palestinians' suffering. Those remarks did not remain for very long on the radio's website, for they were reportedly removed after a few hours. Later on Sunday a statement from a leading member of Islamic Jihad insisted that the organization's military wing would "continue to use rockets according to the circumstances on the ground."

These incidents seem to reveal a classic case of the left hand not quite knowing what the right hand is doing – which is of little consequence, if the outcome moves the situation forward towards some sort of accommodation. But what is really to be made of these events?

Hamas itself, to say nothing of the more extreme Islamic militant groups that have been attacking Hamas leaders and engaging in violence within Gaza, are designated "terrorist" by the USA and the EU. If the proximity talks are indeed still on the agenda – and this seems more likely than not at the moment - it is understandable if Fatah holds off at present from associating with them.

As for Hamas, it is certainly in their interest to curb the internecine conflict that has been disrupting their administration within Gaza. They also, more cynically, have an interest in maintaining a period of calm with Israel in order to continue rebuilding their military infrastructure and smuggle in advanced weaponry.

An example was revealed last Thursday, when Egyptian security forces discovered a massive arms cache in the central Sinai Peninsula that they believed was on its way to Hamas in Gaza. The cache, according to Egyptian media reports, included 100 anti-aircraft missiles, likely to be shoulder-launched, as well as 40 rocket-propelled grenades and 40 other explosive devices.

Hamas was believed to have shoulder-to-air missiles before Operation Cast Lead, but they were not used because Hamas had not had the chance to train their fighters. The same applied to anti-tank missiles. Intelligence analysts now believe that Hamas has trained its men to use the advanced weaponry, mostly by sending them to Iran and Lebanon.

All of which leads to the conclusion that any truce agreed by Hamas and the other militant groups within Gaza would be a tactical device to allow them to complete their preparations for something quite different. There may indeed be a degree of confusion at the moment within their ranks. Those parties set on the course for a genuine settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute must be on the alert to ensure that there is none within their own.

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