The al-Qassam Brigades, the so-called “armed wing” of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, is reeling from the recent execution of former official Mahmoud Ishtiwi at the hands of his fellow fighters. Several members of the Hamas fighting force resigned in protest, arguing that Ishtiwi was killed because of internal arguments within Hamas rather than immoral behavior, as was first reported. The schism has produced a new breakaway faction—the Free Qassam Members (al-Qassamiyoun al-Ahrar) which is openly speaking out against the al-Qassam Brigades leadership and calling for an investigation.
The schism amongst Hamas fighters comes at a difficult time for the group. Leaders from the group’s Politburo, its main policy-making body, are also squabbling. It doesn’t help that these figures are scattered across the Middle East, in places like Turkey, Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and beyond. The exile stems from Hamas’s fallout with Iran and Syria in 2012 over the slaughter in Syria. Hamas had been operating out of Damascus since the 1990s, but elected to leave after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with Iranian assistance, began its mass slaughter of Syrian Sunnis and Palestinians in Syrian refugee camps. The rupture not only forced Hamas to relinquish its Syrian headquarters; it also led to a cutoff in Iranian funding.
Yet, not all Hamas members have accepted the divorce with Iran as final. Tehran has continued to provide the al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza with rocket technology to wage war with Israel, and possibly weapons for the group’s underground operatives in the West Bank. Last week, Hamas sent a high-level delegation to Iran to celebrate the Islamic Republic’s 37th anniversary. The delegation included Osama Hamdan, the group’s Lebanon–based head of international relations, Khalid al-Qaddumi, the permanent Hamas representative to Iran, and Politburo member Mohammed Nasser. Their very presence suggests that Iran could yet again gain vast influence over the Palestinian militant group, particularly its armed wing.
But Hamdan and company don’t lead the Hamas Politburo. That distinction goes to Khaled Meshaal, who has been operating out of Qatar since his exile from Syria. Qatar has become a key funder for the group in recent years. The former emir, Sheikh Hamad, was the first world leader to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where he pledged $400 million in 2012. Qatari aid continues to flow today, including through channels approved by Israel to contribute to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after the devastating war with Israel in 2014.
Qatar’s assistance, while crucial to the survival of Hamas, is not without its controversies. The Free Qassam Members, who have pledged their allegiance to Meshaal, claim that Ishtiwi’s executioners targeted him for contacting Hamas leaders abroad. This seems to suggest a growing and open rift between the military and political wings of the movement.
Hamas’s various leaders and factions, at the very least, are having trouble communicating. This was made clear with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June 2014. That attack was planned and financed by a Hamas leader, Saleh Arouri, in yet another center of gravity for the group—Turkey. It is questionable whether Arouri conferred with his Hamas colleagues before ordering the operation. If he did, his colleagues somehow didn’t foresee that the attack could lead to a brutal war. And brutal it was, lasting 50 days, with Israel responding to Hamas’s nearly 5,000 rocket attacks with punishing reprisals.
The summer 2014 war was one from which the Gaza Strip has yet to recover. Nearly two years later, the Hamas government is under fire from its own constituents for failing to rebuild. The Hamas government has grown cautious—amid the current wave of stabbings and attacks in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip remains uncharacteristically quiet.
True, Hamas exhorts its followers in the West Bank to strike Israelis, but the group is cheering for a war it won’t have to fight. And yes, the al-Qassam Brigades are believed to be digging underground commando tunnels for the next war. But Israel’s leaders have signaled, knowingly or not, that this activity is unlikely to prompt a full-blown conflict.
Thus, while its founding charter has not changed, Hamas appears to be lacking direction. Its military wing and a gaggle of political leaders in exile are locked in a competition. Add to that the public frustration with the Gaza-based government leadership, and it’s hard to pinpoint which faction or which leader is actually steering the organization.
One could argue that this is a positive development for Israel, or even for the overall security of the Middle East. To be sure, a fractured Hamas is a weakened one. But a fractured terrorist organization can also be more unpredictable. Hamas lacks command and control. A single faction could launch a war that the rest of the organization does not want—and one that Israel or Western intelligence might be less likely to predict.