Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas says he does not want to see “militias” in the Gaza Strip if and when the “reconciliation” agreement he reached with Hamas is implemented. “The Palestinian leadership will not accept the model of militias in the Gaza Strip because it isn’t a successful one,” Abbas told the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “There should be one authority, one law and one weapon, with no militias.”
Hamas, for its part, has already rejected Abbas’s demand. Hamas has said it has no intention of disarming despite the “reconciliation” agreement recently signed in Cairo. “We can’t give up our weapons and because the Palestinian people are still in the phase of national liberation,” said Yehya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. “We also can’t and won’t recognize Israel.”
Hamas’s refusal to disarm should come as no surprise. Since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip ten years ago, it has built a huge security apparatus that consists of thousands of militiamen, most of them members of Ezaddin Al-Qassam, the movement’s military wing. Hamas has also smuggled large amounts of weapons into the Gaza Strip and dug dozens of tunnels along the borders with Israel and Egypt.
The notion that Hamas would ever dismantle its security apparatus and deliver the Gaza Strip to Mahmoud Abbas’s forces is a fantasy. Hamas has no problem allowing Abbas loyalists to return to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, as was the situation before 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. But this is the most Hamas would be willing to sacrifice to support the success of the “reconciliation” accord with Abbas and his Fatah faction.
This is a price Hamas is prepared to pay, not out of affection for Abbas but because it serves its own interest. The reopening of the Rafah terminal will allow Hamas to breath after years of isolation and blockade. A few hundred Abbas loyalists who manage the Rafah border crossing do not pose a threat to Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip.
Above all, Hamas seeks to prevent a return to the pre-2007 era, when the Palestinian Authority had exclusive control over the Gaza Strip. Until that year, the PA had multiple security forces that maintained a tight grip on the Gaza Strip and employed an “iron fist” policy against Hamas and other opposition groups.
The statements of Hamas leaders in the past few days show that they are seeking to duplicate the model Hezbollah uses in Lebanon. Hamas wants to remain in charge of security matters in the Gaza Strip while restricting the Palestinian Authority’s responsibilities to civilian affairs. Hamas’s refusal to disarm and hand over security responsibilities to Abbas could torpedo the Egyptian-sponsored “reconciliation” agreement — especially in light of the PA’s rejection of copying the Hezbollah model in the Gaza Strip.
While Abbas is talking about the need for Hamas to disarm and dismantle its militia, however, some Palestinians are wondering what would be the fate of armed groups in the Gaza Strip that are affiliated with Fatah if the “reconciliation” agreement is implemented.
Hamas is far from the only party with a militia in the Gaza Strip. Almost all of the other Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), have their own militias there — in addition to a number of ISIS-inspired militias that have also appeared in the Gaza Strip in the past few years.
It is estimated that there are about 50 different militias operating in the Gaza Strip. These militias are said to be in possession of about a million pieces of weaponry.
Abbas’s real test will be the day he is forced to face the unruly Fatah-affiliated armed groups in the Gaza Strip. Abbas has good reason to be worried about the Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP and DFLP militias. None of these groups will ever voluntarily lay down its weapons or dismantle its militias just because the Egyptians or Abbas want it to. Abbas, moreover, also needs to worry about the Fatah-affiliated groups: they also are unlikely to comply with his wish to see no militias in the Gaza Strip.
Fatah has in the Gaza Strip several armed groups not known for their blind loyalty to Abbas. Some of these disgruntled armed groups, in fact, often sound more like Hamas and Islamic Jihad than Fatah.
Fatah has quite a number of militias in the Gaza Strip: Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Ahmed Abu Rish Brigades, Abdel Qader Al-Husseini Brigades, Martyr Ayman Judeh Groups and Nidal Al-Amoudi Brigades.
Although they are affiliated with Abbas’s Fatah, these armed groups continue to talk about an “armed struggle” against Israel and their desire to “liberate Palestine, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river.” The unruly Fatah-affiliated groups have a history of angering and embarrassing Abbas and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank. The groups often issue statements applauding terror attacks against Israel, such as the recent shooting at Har Adar, near Jerusalem, in which three Israelis were murdered.
For the past few years, the Fatah leadership in the West Bank has sought to distance itself from the actions and rhetoric of those Fatah armed groups in the Gaza Strip. That effort reflects the desire of the Fatah leadership in the West Bank to present itself to the international community (and Israel) as a “moderate” party that opposes violence and seeks a peaceful solution with Israel.
Even more worrying for Abbas is that in addition to Hamas, the Fatah armed groups in the Gaza Strip are refusing to disarm as a result of the “reconciliation” agreement.
Now, not only does Abbas have to worry about Hamas and Islamic Jihad; he has his own Fatah gunmen saying that they too will not disarm. This headache for Abbas poses yet another obstacle to the implementation of the “reconciliation” agreement.
As Abu Mohammed, a spokesman for the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Gaza Strip, said recently: “We won’t give up our weapons until all Palestine has been liberated.” His statement echoes the position of Hamas and all the other armed groups. If Hamas refuses to disarm, that is one thing, but when Abbas’s supposed loyalists also come out with similar statements, that is akin to spitting in the face of the Palestinian Authority president.
The “reconciliation” agreement has yet to be implemented on the ground, yet the issue of the militias in the Gaza Strip is already emerging as a major obstacle and a severe blow to Abbas. He will now have to decide: either to proceed with the “reconciliation” agreement and accept playing the role of president of a Gaza Strip filled with armed groups and militias — most of which are no friend of his, or to backtrack and realize that his wish to have one law, one police force and one authority in the Gaza Strip is nothing more than a pipe-dream.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.