Not long before the scandal erupted in the Israel Defense Forces last month over a soldier’s shooting of a wounded terrorist in Hebron, the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip was dealing with its own, very different, moral scandal.
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About two months ago, a battalion commander in Hamas’ military wing was executed by his own organization: Mahmoud Eshtewi – who commanded a battalion in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood – was detained for over a year before finally being shot to death. In early February, Hamas returned his body to his family and announced that he had been executed after admitting under questioning to unspecified moral offenses.
Ever since, rumors have been flying around Gaza over what he actually did. Speculations range from being gay to spying for Israel. One rumor accused him of revealing the hiding place of military chief Mohammed Deif to Israel during the war of summer 2014. An Israeli airstrike in August 2014 failed to kill Deif, but did kill his wife, daughter and baby son.
Eshtewi’s family says he gave a false confession under severe torture and was innocent of any wrongdoing.
The argument over Eshtewi has become entangled with an escalating power struggle within the organization. On one side is Khaled Meshal, the Qatar-based head of Hamas’ political bureau. On the other is the troika now running Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, Iz al-Din al-Qassam: Deif, Marwan Issa and Yahya Sanwar.
Sanwar was released from an Israeli prison in the 2011 exchange for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and is considered a rising star. He currently serves as the liaison between Hamas’ military and political wings, and is considered a top authority figure by his military colleagues. He is leading a hard line against Israel, and is also behind the military wing’s insistence on maintaining ties with the Islamic State’s Egyptian franchise, Wilayat Sinai, even though this infuriates Cairo. Sanwar is challenging both Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza.
Sanwar is thought to have been personally behind Eshtewi’s execution, which was ordered by the military wing following a drumhead court-martial. Usually, such a decision would be made by the political leadership, and only after a more orderly legal process.
Meshal, who is worried by the military leadership’s growing strength and independence, was furious that he wasn’t involved in the decision and made his anger clear to the military wing. He is now pushing for a commission of inquiry to investigate the affair and is trying to restore the boundaries of authority between the two wings. Haniyeh is sitting on the fence, trying to maneuver between two poles that are both stronger than he in the triumvirate that rules Hamas.
The IDF, meanwhile, is sticking to its assessment that Hamas is exercising restraint against Israel because it is busy rebuilding its Gaza fiefdom, both economically and militarily. In October, when violence in the West Bank began escalating, Palestinians in Gaza began holding violent demonstrations near the Israeli border on Fridays. But recently, the number of demonstrators has dropped from thousands to dozens, as Hamas evidently sees no purpose in causing friction along the border. Its forces continue to operate along the border to prevent smaller organizations from firing rockets at Israel.
The Israeli government has ordered the IDF to try and maintain the calm along the Gaza border for as long as possible, while also preparing for the possibility of another round of fighting. The explosion could come due to the worsening economic situation in Gaza; as a side effect of a major Hamas terror attack in the West Bank; or because the military wing decides to hurry up and use its newly rebuilt cross-border attack tunnels before the IDF discovers them or deploys new technology aimed at making such tunnels easier to detect.
The military wing’s main lesson from the 2014 war was the need to surprise the IDF and catch it unprepared. In Hamas’ view, the organization squandered the advantage of surprise in that war by conducting ongoing operations in, and hesitating over the use of, an attack tunnel that emerged near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. This provided Israel with advance warning and enabled it to deploy defensively in a way that minimized the damage caused by tunnel attacks. Nevertheless, the tunnels remain Hamas’ best card in the next conflict.
The IDF’s operating assumption remains as it was: Hamas currently has no interest in a full-fledged military conflict, because of its difficult economic and diplomatic situation. Nevertheless, several factors that are difficult to weigh complicate the intelligence picture: the military wing’s growing independence; the tension between it and the political wing; and its frustration over its limited achievements in 2014.
For all these reasons, Israeli intelligence remains suspicious and skeptical about what’s happening in Gaza, and the IDF is preparing for another possible conflict this spring or summer – even if it doesn’t consider such a conflict likely.