Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—Controversy continues to surround statements by senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) intend to form a joint command, with some movement officials confirming the news, and others denying it.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page on Monday following a meeting between the two Islamist groups, the Zahar announced that a decision had been reached that Hamas and the PIJ will appoint four officials each to formulate a political plan and form a joint command. Meetings between Hamas and the PIJ on the matter are ongoing, according to Zahar.
Following the Hamas-PIJ meeting, entitled “Political Developments and Bilateral Relations,” Zahar said: “We emphasize the depth of the political relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, hoping that the negotiations and meetings between us can continue on all levels.”
“Hamas has taken serious steps. These are not just theoretical writings,” the Gaza strongman added.
According to the Hamas affiliated Al-Resalah newspaper, Zahar’s announcement on Monday follows seven recent meetings between the two Palestinian movements.
However Islamic Jihad deputy leader Ziad Nakhleh subsequently denied Zahar’s claim, telling journalists that “the news of the formation of a joint Hamas-Islamic Jihad command is not accurate.”
Nakhleh said that the PIJ enjoys excellent relations with the Hamas movement in confronting Israeli occupation but asserted that the two remain separate groups.
An official within the PIJ issued a statement explaining the confusion over Zahar’s recent statements.
He said, “Islamic Jihad is very eager to consolidate its relations with the Hamas movement,” adding, “For many long years, the two groups have held joint meetings and joint activities, while there has also been a joint coordination committee between the two groups to discuss all issues, and this committee has been in operation over approximately the past six years.”
The statement concluded: “Islamic Jihad hopes to increase this relationship to better serve the resistance, Palestinian people, and Cause.”
For his part, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “Hamas and Islamic Jihad have agreed to form a Supreme Coordination Command committee to deal with joint issues,” denying the formation of any so-called “joint command.”
He said, “What has been attributed to Dr. Mahmoud Al-Zahar about the formation of a Hamas-Islamic Jihad joint-command is not accurate, and what he meant was the formation of a Supreme Coordination Command.”
Informed sources in the Gaza Strip, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that this coordinating leadership has been in place for a number of years and does not represent a new initiative.
The source said, “These leaders have been working for years to coordinate positions on one hand and solve problems on the other.”
The Gaza Strip source also told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The dialogue between Hamas and Islamic Jihad aims to secure a merger,” adding, “this is nothing new.”
However the source said there are significant obstacles to any possible Hamas-PIJ merger, particularly in terms of opposition among the memberships of both groups.
The source said: “Until this moment, there is no merger or any agreement on a merger, however dialogue is ongoing, and Al-Zahar perhaps just went too early in his announcement.”
The source also claimed that Hamas is seeking to convince the PIJ to participate in governing the Gaza Strip. A Hamas-PIJ merger would see this new Islamic group in the Gaza Strip potentially challenge Fatah in terms of representation within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in addition to municipal and national council elections.