JERUSALEM/GAZA: Founded by just seven people in Gaza, Hamas now has political and military leaders spread across the Arab world, complicating its ability to send a unified message for negotiating an end to a seven-week war with Israel.
In less than 30 years, what was a grassroots Islamic group has expanded well beyond the confines of Gaza, a narrow coastal enclave hemmed in by Israel and Egypt.
But the Islamist movement’s diffuse structure and complex lines of communication have created confusion over whether it is responsible for staging some attacks on Israeli targets or not.
Illustrating this confusion, Hamas’s leader in the West Bank - who lives in exile in Turkey - claimed responsibility last week for the killing of three Jewish seminary students in June, an attack that led indirectly to the current conflict.
His claim was initially played down by others in Hamas, which had denied any involvement, before Hamas’s overall leader, Khaled Meshaal, accepted that it had carried out the killings.
“We were not aware of this action taken by this group of Hamas members in advance,” Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar, told Yahoo News, appearing reluctant to put any blame on the West Bank leadership for failing to notify him earlier.
“But we understand people are frustrated under the occupation and the oppression, and they take all kinds of actions,” he said. “Hamas’s political leadership was not aware of all these details. We learned about it later on.”
Similar gaps in the movement’s position have emerged at other times, delaying negotiations on ending a conflict in which more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and four civilians have been killed.
Such a problem arose after Egyptian mediators, negotiating indirectly with Israel and the Palestinians in Cairo, struck a five-day ceasefire earlier this month.
Hamas negotiators then headed in different directions to consult on the way forward. Some went to Qatar to see Meshaal, others stayed in Cairo where the movement’s number two, Moussa Abu Marzouk, is based, and still others were due to return to Gaza.
Then, with positive noises emerging about the possibility of an agreement, a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing dismissed the talks entirely. “The Palestinian delegation should leave Cairo immediately and not return,” declared Abu Ubaida, the spokesman for the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades. “Any move (towards a truce deal) will not be binding on us at all.”
Beverley Milton-Edwards, a professor of politics and international studies at Queen’s University in Belfast and a specialist on Hamas, has written about the difficulty of pinning the movement down in its positions. “Hamas has a record of engaging in spoiler violence in order to have a negative impact on peace implementation,” she said, referring to earlier efforts to achieve peace with Israel.
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