July 25, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 715

Hamas's Gaza – Four Years Later; Chapter 4: Internal Conflicts within Hamas

July 25, 2011 | By C. Jacob*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 715


Internal disagreement within Hamas has existed for years. Even under Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who resided in Gaza, there were struggles between the "outside" Hamas (Khaled Mash'al in Damascus) and the "domestic" Hamas when Mash'al challenged Yassin's leadership. The power struggles with Mash'al continued even after Yassin stepped down and handed the leadership over to his successor, 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rantisi. It should be noted that the split between the "outside" Hamas and the "domestic" Hamas is not clear-cut. For example, the head of Hamas's armed branch the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Ahmad Al-Ja'bari, who operates in Gaza, is subordinate to and guided by Mash'al, and acts independently from the political echelons of the movement in Gaza.[1]

The main disagreements in the last four years have been over the tahdiah (calm, with Israel), the reconciliation with Fatah, the negotiations with Israel, and the issue of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. There are also disputes over the allocation of funds. The present circumstances, which combine resistance with the politics of tahdiah, are apparently contributing to the escalation of preexisting conflicts.

Disputes over Funds

The disputes over funds are exemplified in the following incident, reported January 20, 2010 on two Fatah-affiliated websites, and This incident also illustrates the conflict that exists between the Gaza leadership and 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam commander Ahmad Al-Ja'bari. According to the report, Al-Ja'bari stormed into the office of Hamas leader in Gaza Isma'il Haniya and demanded a share of the funds that had been supplied to Hamas by former British MP George Galloway. Al-Ja'bari spoke bluntly to Haniya and insulted him, demanding to see the money, whereupon Haniya obediently produced a case containing one million dollars. The commander took $600,000, returned the rest, and said to Haniya: 'We [i.e., the Al-Qassam Brigades] will use this money to manage our affairs for now, and don't you forget that our share [should be] larger than yours. What you raise from the public is enough for you. And Isma'il Haniya, don't forget the vehicles you owe us.'

Explaining the incident, the report added: "It is a well known fact in Gaza that Haniya's deposed government does not [really] control the Strip, and that all decisions and appointments are made by the Al-Qassam militiamen, [headed by] Al-Ja'bari. They do not obey the law, [but allow themselves] to murder, spill blood, and violate [people's] honor. If a judge or an officer dares to arrest one of these criminals, his fate is to be humiliated, beaten, and ostracized. This is the reform and change[2] that Gaza [is witnessing] in the Hamas era."[3]

Dispute over the Tahdiah

One of the most acute disagreements in Hamas was over the renewal of the tahdiah on the eve of the Gaza war in December 2008. According to Palestinian sources, the relations between the Damascus and Gaza leaderships cooled following Khaled Mash'al's decision to end the tahdiah, in opposition to the stance of Hamas in Gaza – a decision which led to the Israeli operation. Various sources noted that "Mahmoud Al-Zahhar and Ahmad Al-Ja'bari warned Mash'al and the other leaders in Damascus that ending the tahdiya was a hasty move, because preparations for war against Israel had not yet been completed. But the leaders in Damascus did not heed the warnings."[4]

A dispute was also sparked by Mash'al's call to establish a source of authority alternative to the PLO. Former Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said that such a move would deepen the schism in the Palestinian camp.[5] Former Hamas deputy prime minister Nasser Al-Din Al-Sha'er clarified that nobody was promoting the establishment of an alternative to the PLO.[6]

Dispute over Shalit Deal

Another issue disputed within Hamas is the Gilad Shalit situation. In March 2010, it was reported that Mahmoud Al-Zahhar had been forced to withdraw from the negotiations after he agreed to concede on several of Hamas's demands, while Al-Ja'bari demanded the release of all prisoners on the submitted list.

A source in Gaza told a Fatah-affiliated website that Al-Zahhar had made a mistake when he informed the prisoners' families that their loved ones would soon be released, because Israel had announced its refusal to release about 100 of the 450 prisoners on the list. Thus, Hamas was forced to change the list, which enraged the prisoners and their families. According to the website, another mistake by the negotiators was that they agreed that some of the prisoners would not return to their homes in the West Bank, but would be deported to Gaza or else expelled from the country altogether. The website noted that in light of this series of mistakes, the Hamas leadership in Damascus had sent a letter to Al-Zahhar in Gaza warning against completing the deal. This strengthened the hand of the Hamas members opposed to the deal, such as Al-Ja'bari and his men, while undermining Al-Zahhar and his supporters. Ultimately, Al-Zahhar accepted the instructions of the Damascus leadership to "maintain silence"; this leadership also told him, "You have nothing to do with the prisoners' portfolio."[7]

Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Dahlan also weighed in on this issue: "It is Khaled Mash'al who is sabotaging the Shalit deal, despite Mahmoud Al-Zahhar's support for its completion. Unfortunately, Khaled Mash'al wants to get the deal that he considers to be ideal – but it transpires that this is impossible."[8]

Disagreement deepened after the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades produced an animated video suggesting that Shalit would end up like Ron Arad if Israel continued to drag its heels in negotiating his release. In the clip, posted on the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam website, Shalit's father has a dream about his son's coffin, wrapped in an Israeli flag. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum confirmed that the film had been produced by the Brigades, adding that it was meant to "clarify to the Israeli pubic that its government is not interested in Shalit's release... and that the resistance [i.e., Hamas] will not compromise on the conditions that it is setting [for his release]."[9] In an unusual move, Al-Zahhar openly attacked the Brigades' video, stating that it did not reflect Hamas's position. He said that Hamas "will never murder captive Israeli soldiers... Our morality and our religion forbid it."[10]

In an attempt to temper the dispute between the sides, Palestinian Legislative Council member from Hamas Salah Al-Bardawil said, "There is no contradiction between the content of the video and Dr. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar's statements on the moral values of Hamas in all things pertaining to the movements' treatment of captives."[11]

Disputes about the Reconciliation Prior to the Signing of the Reconciliation Agreement

In explaining Hamas's refusal to sign the reconciliation agreement with Fatah in 2009, senior PA and Fatah officials pointed to disputes within Hamas. Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Sha'th said, "The reconciliation decision is not in the hands of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, or in the hands of the Hamas leaders in the prisons... Hamas [members] in the West Bank want reconciliation, but the position of Hamas in Damascus is different. I am not saying that there is a struggle between 'outside' and 'domestic,' but there are two different views."[12]

Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Shtaya was more emphatic: "Some [in Hamas] are interested in reconciliation, but meanwhile, the Hamas leadership in Damascus is holding up [the agreement] and refusing to sign the reconciliation document." [13]

On a Hamas-affiliated website, the director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, Dr. 'Azzam Tamimi, wrote: "Some Hamas leaders think that, in light of the harm [done] to the movement in the West Bank and in light of the suffocating siege on Gaza, the only lifeline is reconciliation... while others in the Hamas leadership think that reconciliation is deception [by Fatah and the PA], which are seeking to obtain through it what they did not obtain by other ways."[14]

Another internal dispute related to the reconciliation with Fatah surfaced in March 2011 when 'Abbas expressed his willingness to visit Gaza. Some of the Hamas leaders in Gaza, such as Isma'il Haniya, as well as Hamas leaders in the West Bank, such as 'Aziz Duweik, welcomed 'Abbas's initiative, whereas Hamas leaders in Damascus questioned his motives and leveled harsh criticism at him. Hamas foreign relations head Osama Hamdan said: "If Abu Mazen wants reconciliation, he must stop the security coordination [with Israel] and the political arrests, and acknowledge the results of the 2006 elections."[15]

Disputes Following the Signing of the Reconciliation Agreement

The signing of the reconciliation agreement with Fatah did not put an end to the internal conflicts within Hamas. Speaking at the signing ceremony in Cairo, Khaled Mash'al said his movement was willing to allow one more year for negotiations with Israel.[16] Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar responded to this statement with harsh criticism, saying that Hamas had not withdrawn from its position that opposes negotiations with Israel. "I think that [Mash'al's] statements do not represent Hamas, whose program is based on resistance, not negotiations," he said.[17] In another interview, he said: "We were not aware of Khaled Mash'al's position. He did not consult with anyone on this matter. This position is wrong. We never gave Fatah a chance or a mandate to negotiate on our behalf or on behalf of the Palestinian people."[18]

Hamas Political Bureau member 'Izzat Al-Rishq defended Mash'al, saying: "Mahmoud Al-Zahhar's statements were a mistake. They do not reflect the positions of the movement or its institutions, and they deviate from the organizational norms observed by the movement members... Dr. Al-Zahhar is not authorized to interpret the statements of the head of the movement or to correct them. The political bureau is the only body authorized to clarify or correct the statements of the leadership."[19]

Hamas foreign liaisons chief Osama Hamdan also attacked Al-Zahhar: "Al-Zahhar's statements reflect his personal opinion, whereas the ones who express the movement's position are the head of its political bureau and the [other] members of the leadership... Al-Zahhar's statements constitute a breach of protocol... and contravene the movement's policy."[20]

Hamas Information Department head Salah Al-Bardawil presented the exchange between Al-Zahhar and Al-Rishq as a case of legitimate diversity within the movement, rather than as a conflict. He said that the movement was united under Mash'al's leadership and that media reports containing "lies" should not be believed."[21]


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 13, 2009.

[2] "Reform and Change" is the name of Hamas's party in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

[3],, January 20, 2010.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 31, 2009.

[5] Al-Quds (Palestinian Authority), February 1, 2009.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 1, 2009.

[7], March 2, 2010.

[8], April 3, 2010.

[9] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority, April 26, 2010.

[10] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), April 27, 2010.

[11] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), April 28, 2010.

[12] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), March 25, 2010.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 23, 2010.

[14], March 23, 2010.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 23, 2011.

[16] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), May 4, 2011.

[17] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), May 17, 2011.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 24, 2011.

[19], May 25, 2011.

[20], May 25, 2011.

[21], May 24, 2011.

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