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How Hamas’ internal politics are fuelling the Gaza war

Abed Rahim Khatib/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

The Gaza conflict didn't have to go this way. On July 15th, two days before Israel began its sure-to-be bloody ground invasion of Gaza, Egypt proposed a plan for an indefinite ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Israel accepted it. Hamas' political leadership was considering it. But Hamas fighters kept firing rockets, which convinced the Israeli leadership that the cease fire wouldn't hold. Israel resumed military operations six hours later.

Why did the ceasefire fall apart and fighting resume? According to one journalist who's spent years covering Gaza, the answer partly has to do with Hamas' military branch, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He argued that they really believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that they can defeat Israel through sheer force of arms. That makes Hamas more likely to choose war, even when it's (in rational terms) for both sides.

Shlomi Eldar, a well-respected Israeli reporter who has extensive first-hand experience with Hamas, argues in his new al-Monitor column that there's a clear divide between Hamas' political and military leadership. Hamas' political leaders "are not beholden to too many delusions," Eldar writes. "The reality and the balance of power between Gaza and Israel is clear to them." In other words, they get that Israel has a stronger military.

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Eyad Al Baba/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But the story is different for the Qassam Brigades, the militant wing, which the political wing can't always control. "Hamas militants have forgotten that across the Erez crossing [with Israel] there's a country with a larger, more sophisticated army, with capabilities that are beyond comparison with Gaza's."

It's not that the Hamas political wing opposes fighting Israel at all. Far from it. Rather, they've long supported an approach Eldar calls "controlled violence" — an idea that military struggle against Israel needs to coexist with political operations at home, and sometimes the needs of the political struggle dictate limiting military operations. "The military wing," Eldar concludes, "has ignored the concept," opting for direct combat against Israel whenever possible.

Why are the military and political wings so far apart? Eldar, in a fascinating passage, suggests its a matter of age and experience. The older political leadership knows Israel, and its strengths, better. The younger Qassam fighters don't have that experience and overestimate the feasibility of military force as a result:

In the past, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel, learned its language, got to know its culture and even formed ties of friendship with their Israeli employers. In the course of the second intifada and Hamas' rise to power, these ties have all been severed. The older generation found itself unemployed and without income and the youth found work with the militant wing of Hamas and the other organizations (Islamic Jihad as well as the popular resistance committees).

These young men, who have not once in their lives left the borders of the Gaza Strip and have never seen Israel, have been fed the stories of the wonders of the Palestinian rocket, which was developed in Gaza's workshops and can shake Israel. The stories of the glory of Hamas have been impressed well in the young recruits and the doctrine that has been so deeply etched in them has given them the feeling, or the delusion, that salvation could be gained through the rockets that have been developed in Gaza.

The major takeaway here is that it's impossible to understand the Hamas-Israel dynamics without looking at Hamas' internal politics. Hamas doesn't make decisions as a monolith. And while internal Hamas politics are more subtle than a stark military-political binary, there's an essential fault line there — one that seems to have played a big role in escalating the current crisis.

Anyway, Eldar's whole column is fascinating. You should read the whole thing.

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