Hamas, long the peace spoiler, finds it hard to halt attacks

Four members of Islamic Jihad show off their weapons during an interview in Gaza City on July 3, 2008.
Four members of Islamic Jihad show off their weapons during an interview in Gaza City on July 3, 2008.

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Like a Gettysburg battlefield tour guide, Ali Kafarna pointed out the scars of war as he walked through the fields between his home and the Israeli border.

"Here's where the tanks used to stop," said Ali, 14, as he passed a dirt berm dug into dry grass littered with shrapnel and animal bones.

"Here's where they used to fire rockets," Ali said of the charred square of earth that Palestinians used as a launching pad to attack Israel.

Until last month, this area was a no-go zone for Ali and his family. Two weeks into a shaky cease-fire, Palestinian families are using the relative calm to visit bullet-scarred homes a few hundred yards from the Israeli border and replant orchards uprooted by the Israeli military.

But the Egyptian-brokered peace is slowly unraveling as Hamas leaders in Gaza struggle to keep militants — especially their Fatah rivals — from firing the occasional rocket at Israel.

It's an awkward situation for Hamas: After years of derailing Palestinian peace talks with Israel by staging suicide bombings, Hamas is now the one asking rivals to halt their attacks on Israel.

Hamas is using a mix of coercion and shame to try to keep militants from breaking the deal. In the past week, Hamas has arrested two Fatah members and given them stern warnings to fall in line.

Hamas also has directed all militants to get permission before firing any rockets at Israel. If it happens without approval, a Hamas-led crisis management team steps in.

And the Islamist group has publicly accused Gaza rocket launchers of betraying the Palestinian people and playing into Israeli hands by staging their attacks.

So far, it hasn't been enough.

Since the cease-fire took hold on Jun 19, Gaza militants have fired 11 rockets and mortars at southern Israel. They caused little damage but Israel used them to justify temporarily blocking the flow of supplies into Gaza.

In response, Hamas leaders have accused Israel of breaking its part of the deal by closing the borders. They've also warned that the shut-down could jeopardize the possible release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants more than two years ago.

"We are trying to do our best here to make sure no one is violating or abusing the agreement," Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said on Thursday. Nonetheless, a small militant group fired a rocket into a southern Israeli field a few hours later, harming nothing else but the fragile cease-fire.

For Fatah fighters routed by Hamas forces during the Gaza takeover last summer, there is little incentive to comply: If the cease-fire holds, it'll make Hamas look even better.

Last week, Fatah militants took credit for one of the rocket volleys that hit Israel — a move that prompted Hamas to threaten arrests.

Hamas has already detained several Fatah members, including a spokesman for the group's militant wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Yousef suggested that Fatah fighters were helping the Israelis by undercutting the deal.

"There are people who have their own agendas to discredit the government," said Yousef. "They might be collaborators."

Mohammed Abu Irmana, the detained Al Aqsa spokesman, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy that Al Aqsa would continue to fire rockets if Israel keeps staging deadly raids in the West Bank.

"This is not a good agreement if it stops the resistance," said Irmana. "We have to respond."

Though the cease-fire agreement does not cover the West Bank, Gaza militants uniformly said that Israel needs to understand that, in their minds, the two are linked.

Yousef said militant groups don't distinguish between fatal Israeli attacks in Gaza and those in the West Bank.

"Their blood is our blood," said Yousef. "If they are serious about the cease-fire, they should think twice about any military action in the West Bank."

Members of Islamic Jihad, the Gaza group that was the first to break the cease-fire after two if its members were killed in an Israeli raid in the West Bank, said the same thing.

In a nondescript Gaza Strip mosque, a group of Islamic Jihad fighters wearing black facemasks and combat vests proudly showed off Chinese-made machine guns and Russian rocket-propelled-grenades.

"It's like rain coming down," said one 25-year-old militant who identified himself as Abu Thabet. "You can get all kinds of weapons."

Though they aren't regularly firing rockets, Islamic Jihad members said they're still making new ones.

"This cease-fire is a matter of rest," said a 20-year-old fighter who gave his non du guerre as Abu Mohammed. "It's a fighters' break, to prepare for the next stage."