Mohammed Deif, the commander of the Hamas military wing whom Israel tried to assassinate during last summer’s war in Gaza, is alive and involved in Hamas’ military decisions, according both Israeli and Palestinian assessments.
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It also appears that while Hamas has tried to present itself as victorious in the fighting against Israel last summer, opinion in the Gaza Strip is divided over the outcome of the war, especially in light of the serious social and economic situation in the Strip today.
The decision to confront Israel militarily was made in the context of the severe distress in Gaza due to the Israeli closure, as a means of putting the plight of Gaza on the agendas of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community.
However, there was disagreement in Hamas over how to achieve that goal. The military wing, headed by Deif, was ready with an operational plan based on raids on an Israeli community, primarily Kerem Shalom, via tunnels and the abduction of soldiers and civilians back to Gaza. That, they argued, would give the military wing a strong bargaining chip vis a vis Israel, even at the cost of a war.
But the Hamas political echelon was against the plan, opposition that greatly frustrated Deif and his people. During the war there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to implement Deif’s plan, with the result that today, nine months after Operation Protective Edge, the Gaza Strip is worse off in every way, according to Gazans themselves.
The efforts of Hamas’ military wing are now focused on drafting fighters and rebuilding battalions, mainly in the areas of Beit Hanun, Shujaiyeh and Khan Yunis, which were hard hit during the fighting. New attempts are also being made to dig both attack and logistical tunnels.
The rebuilding of the tunnels is underway around the clock, with a workforce of about 1,000 men. Construction materials come primarily from private individuals, who receive them to rebuild their homes, But because they lack the money to complete construction of their homes, they sell the material on the black market. Where possible, wood and plastic are being used in place of concrete slabs.
Hamas is also working to rehabilitate its rocket capabilities, especially the long-range, 150-kilometer rockets. Deif is personally involved in advancing this project, and it is believed that the organization is training engineers and other experts who can assemble the rockets in the Gaza Strip. That is because Egypt has cracked down on tunnels in the Rafah area, through which Hamas was once able to smuggle weapons.
The humanitarian hardships that resulted from the war have meant an additional 70,000 people are now supported by the United Nations refugee agency UNRWA, bringing to 900,000 the number of people who receive monthly food packages.
Gaza residents only have between six to eight hours a day of electricity, and the quality of the water is very poor.
The concern is that the situation could lead to another outbreak of violence, because no long-term resolution is in sight, despite a certain easing of the closure on the Strip.
Hamas, which would like to absolve itself of responsibility for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, has distanced itself from the rehabilitation work. Only in the past two months has work begun on approximately 100,000 homes that were damaged during the war. Some 80,000 of the homeowners have now received the necessary construction materials. However, construction has yet to start on another 16,000 homes that were completely demolished, and tens of thousands of residents are still living in UNRWA schools.
At this stage, Hamas continues to maintain its unity and hierarchy and its grip on power. Neither the political nor the military wing of Hamas wants another round of conflict with Israel, at least not for the next several months and perhaps years.
Yet the severe distress in Gaza could dictate a different pace of events. Although Israel has increased the quotas of construction materials and products going into the Strip, unemployment, mainly among young people, stands at 40 percent.
Money is coming in from Qatar and Kuwait and the UN is funding some projects, but the major funding pledged by donor countries after the war has not arrived. That funding is conditioned on the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, which is not really functioning in the Gaza Strip. The last visit of a number of PA ministers to Gaza two weeks ago ended after about 24 hours, showing that the option of PA rule in the Strip in the near future is not realistic.