CAIRO, Egypt, (AP) – Signs of sharp division are appearing within the top ranks of Hamas as fighting with Israel in Gaza intensifies and cease-fire talks brokered by Egypt reach a critical point.
The differences have sharpened over the past two days and could have a significant impact on the outcome of the truce negotiations.
Gaza-based Hamas officials have sounded more willing in recent days to consider a deal for a temporary cease-fire, being pushed by Egypt, even though the proposal would leave Israeli troops on the ground in Gaza temporarily and keep the territory’s borders sealed in the short term. But Hamas political officials, close to the group’s leadership-in-exile in Syria, have characterized a cease-fire as still far away.
One key Hamas official from inside Gaza, Ghazi Hamad, told the BBC Wednesday he was optimistic the cease-fire being worked on in Egypt could be reached.
Salah al-Bardawil, another Hamas official from Gaza, stopped short of saying the militants had accepted the Egyptian proposal for a 10-day cease-fire but told reporters, “We hope that this Egyptian effort will succeed.”
But a top Hamas spokesman in Syria, Moussa Abu Marzouk, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Hamas would not abandon its demand that Israel withdraw its troops from Gaza and open border crossings before any cease-fire, even a temporary one, could take effect.
Another top Hamas figure linked to the leadership in Syria, Osama Hamdan, said late Wednesday that Hamas had not agreed to some points of the Egyptian plan.
Israeli intelligence assessments have repeatedly suggested differences emerging between the Syria and Gaza wings of Hamas.
Israel’s goal in the offensive is to inflict heavy damage on Hamas and force it to stop rocketing southern Israel.
A rift in the Hamas leadership could benefit Israel because it suggests the on-the-ground Hamas people in Gaza — bearing the brunt of the offensive — are leaning toward a pragmatic compromise to end the bloodshed.
While the offensive has dealt a blow to Hamas’ battle capabilities, the divisions within the group’s leadership could also work against Israel. It is unclear who truly speaks for the Islamic militants and it remains to be seen whether the group is prepared for a longer-term arrangement. Also a divided Hamas would make it more difficult for Israel to ensure any deal will be observed.
Another problem for Israel is Hamas appears to be enjoying a groundswell of public support at the expense of pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been harshly criticized for not taking a tough enough stance against Israel during this offensive. Abbas has been conducting peace negotiations with Israel.
Egyptian officials also have suggested there are Hamas rifts.
Hamas, however, has denied any internal divisions and has accused Israel of spreading such reports as psychological warfare. And the tougher tone from Syrian-based officials could be merely a negotiating tactic.
The group’s official structure complicates the picture. Hamas insists it makes decisions through a consensus process among an estimated 50 members of the secretive Shura Council who live both inside and outside Gaza and the West Bank.
But the members rarely meet because of travel restrictions and security concerns, and observers note it would be near-impossible for such a big group to make fast decisions.
In practice, Hamas’ most powerful official is widely thought to be Khaled Mashaal, the Syrian-based political leader. Mashaal is considered a hard-liner who consults frequently with Syrian and Iranian officials. Top Iranian officials have visited Damascus frequently throughout the Israeli offensive that began on Dec. 27.
Mashaal has repeatedly called for the militant group to fight on despite more than 1,000 deaths during the offensive. Hundreds of those who died are believed to be fighters, but Gaza medical officials say about half of the dead were civilians.
Mashaal’s power lies in the fact that he controls the group’s purse strings and funnels money as he chooses — much of it thought to come from Iran — to individual Hamas leaders, inside both Gaza and the West Bank. Gaza Hamas leaders in particular depend almost entirely on outside money because the territory’s borders are sealed.
Privately, however, some officials in Gaza say the rising casualties — and the severe hardships caused by Israel’s offensive — have put new pressure on Hamas leaders inside Gaza to find a way to end the fighting.
“The war sparked a strong debate within Hamas over whether we could have avoided this war or not,” said a senior Gaza official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Another sign of the growing Hamas rift is a sharp escalation in the public bickering between two camps of countries in the Mideast.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, allies of the United States, are pushing Hamas to agree to cease-fire terms. Those moderate Arab governments and others hope a Hamas rift could steer the Hamas leadership in Syria away from Iran and Syria and help bring Hamas closer to the Arab moderate camp.
But Syria and Iran have been sharply critical of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others. Iran’s president on Thursday sent a letter to Saudi’s King Abdullah calling on him to do more to defend Hamas and Palestinians and resist Israel.
Iran, however, also seems to be hedging its bets, toning down its rhetoric sporadically in apparent hopes of keeping open the possibility of negotiations with the U.S. on a range of issues after President-elect Barack Obama takes office next week.