GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Three months after Hamas assumed the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas-led government is in danger of disintegrating. The fatal blow may have come from within.
Analysts say the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier last Sunday by Hamas-led militants and the subsequent Israeli retaliation have laid bare the rift, seen, in its simplest terms, as a fight between Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas leader in Syria.
Mashaal is widely believed to have condoned, if not organized, the Sunday raid—an attack that appears to have taken Haniyeh and his allies by surprise.
Evidence of the rift rests largely in the timing of the attack and the subsequent reaction of Hamas leaders in Gaza and Syria.
At the time Palestinian commandoes abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Haniyeh was working with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government based on a pragmatic set of political principles, including language viewed by some as tacit recognition of Israel.
The raid appeared to be designed as much to send a message to Haniyeh as to Israel, analysts say.
"The outsiders are the decision-makers when it comes to the critical issues," said Jihad Hamad, director of the Independent Center for Strategic Studies and Polls in Gaza City.
Haniyeh was undeterred. The day after the attack, Hamas signed off on the compromise document, setting the stage for a coalition government. Even then, Mashaal tried to exert his influence, by telling reporters in Syria that the agreement wasn't a done deal.
Now the military and political wings of Hamas appear to be at odds over how to resolve the ongoing Gaza Strip hostage crisis. Hamas militants who claim to be holding Shalit say they won't release the soldier until Israel frees about 100 women and 300 Palestinians under the age of 18 in Israeli prisons.
Israel has rejected the idea and won't negotiate for Shalit's release.
According to one Palestinian leader close to the negotiations, Haniyeh has suggested that Hamas give up its demand that Israel release the young prisoners and allow Israel to free the women as part of expected talks later this year with Abbas.
But Hamas militants rebuffed the compromise.
"Some people in Hamas, especially our friends abroad, are insisting that there be an exchange of prisoners," said the politician who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive ongoing talks. "Haniyeh is trying his best to solve the question, but he doesn't have the means to convince or commit Hamas. The military branch has their own leadership that goes back out of the country."
If no deal can be worked out, it makes it more likely that Israel will press ahead with a military campaign to destabilize the Hamas-led government.
Israel has made it clear that Mashaal and his supporters aren't immune by sending fighter jets into Syria to buzz President Bashar Assad's northern palace.
"Israel knows the attack was planned by Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, and Israel is signaling Syria that this has to stop or Syria will have to pay a price," said Yoni Fighel, a researcher at The Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel.
In many ways, the Hamas power struggle mirrors ones faced by other revolutionary forces that evolved from fighters into politicians. For decades, Palestinian leaders who lived under Israeli occupation fought with those living abroad over strategy and tactics.
"Generally speaking, any outside leadership that is not in direct daily contact with the people can afford to be more hard-line and to take more purist positions and ideological positions, while any leadership that is in contact with the people and is more sensitive to their needs begins to understand the need for flexibility, pragmatism and compromise," said Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian leader from the West Bank who often fought with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat over these issues.
For now, Israel is exploiting the internal Hamas divisions to press ahead with its destabilization of the Palestinian government. On Thursday, it arrested a third of the Palestinian Cabinet and at least 20 Palestinian legislators.
But some analysts warned that the move could end up shoring up the more extreme Palestinian leaders Israel is trying to isolate.
"Do you think arresting the Hamas government will end the resistance?" asked Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at An-Najah University.
"No it won't. It will do the opposite. The government might have some authority over the militants, but now when the government is in jail, the militants will do anything they want."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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