On Oct. 27, 2017, unknown individuals attempted to assassinate Gen. Tawfiq Abu Naim, commander of the Hamas internal security forces, when they concealed an explosive device in his car while he was at prayer at the mosque in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Abu Naim was lightly injured. However, Hamas security forces have still not been able to apprehend the perpetrators five months later.
The Hamas movement officially blamed Israel for the incident. However, other sources within Hamas reckon that the assassination attempt occurred as the result of an internal conflict within Hamas’s military wing. Tawfiq Abu Naim is considered to be a loyal adherent of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas leader in Gaza, who is in charge of Hamas’s military wing.
Internal conflicts within the military wing are nothing new. According to sources in Gaza, one of the most striking opponents of Sinwar is Fathi Hamad, a member of the Hamas political bureau, who operates an armed brigade of his own faithful followers within the Hamas military wing.
Hamad is a sworn opponent of the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah that Sinwar was leading along with Egyptian intelligence until recently.
Where is Yahya Sinwar?
According to Egyptian sources, seven months ago, in August 2017, Sinwar put Hamad under house arrest and prevented him from giving media interviews, fearing his statements would harm this reconciliation process.
It is not yet clear whether Hamad is behind the attempt to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and intelligence chief Majid Faraj. However, Sinwar’s resounding silence is of concern to many Gaza residents.
Last month, he disappeared completely and disengaged himself from involvement in the reconciliation process, including the visit by the Hamas leadership to Egypt and its encounter with new Egyptian intelligence leader Gen. Abbas Kamal. In the region, this suggests that serious turmoil may be going on inside the Hamas military wing.
Another possible interpretation is that a group of former military figures decided to harm the reconciliation process and the P.A.’s efforts to get back into Gaza after P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered the early retirement of hundreds of army personnel as part of sanctions against the Gaza Strip. It is possible that this group is connected to the assassination attempt.
Either way, there is a Palestinian consensus that even if the P.A. places the blame upon Hamas, it is obvious that it is the main casualty of the assassination attempt on Hamdallah and Faraj. This is because its effort to project an image as the ruler of Gaza has been damaged as a result of the incident.
Even the Egyptian attempts over the past two months to pull the reconciliation process out of the deep mire into which it has fallen have received a mortal blow from the assassination attempt.
A delegation from Egyptian intelligence visiting Gaza the week of the blast denounced the assassination attempt and declared that it would continue with the reconciliation attempt. However, it’s clear that its mission has become even more difficult as a result of the incident.
In the meantime, the P.A. head has frozen all visits of its officials to Gaza. Abbas may also react by imposing further sanctions on Gaza because in any case, he considers the reconciliation process to be an Egyptian-Hamas trap designed to strengthen the position of his bitter rival Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza.
Senior P.A. officials have hastened to use the assassination attempt as an excuse to demand the immediate imposition of authority upon the Hamas internal security authority in Gaza, as well as the transfer of their weapons to the P.A.
Will the Palestinian National Council meet?
The Palestinian National Council is supposed to meet on April 30, 2018, in Ramallah without the participation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The P.A. leader is currently demanding the transfer of complete control to the P.A. in Gaza as a condition for his agreement to change the council structure and include representatives of Hamas.
There is no doubt that in the meantime, the assassination attempt has torpedoed the implementation of the first stage of the reconciliation agreement, which was the transfer of all governing powers in Gaza from Hamas to the P.A. From the outset, Hamas has avoided the implementation of this stage and has made it conditional upon finding a solution to the payment of salaries to around 40,000 employees identified with the movement who have been part of the government sector since 2007.
In recent months, Egypt has been leading the reconciliation process alongside Hamas, which had and still has an interest to continue with this process since it made harsh concessions for it to begin. For this reason, Egypt and Hamas are also casualties of the assassination attempt on Hamdallah’s convoy.
Hamas will need to act quickly to show that it is in control of the security situation and to remove the issue from the agenda so that Abbas will have no excuse to bow out of the reconciliation process.
Until then, reconciliation efforts will slow down. However, Fatah and Hamas cannot allow themselves to let the process grind to a total halt because the residents of the territories will not accept it. This is especially the case with regard to a popular request to achieve national unity before President Trump announces his “deal of the century.”
In addition, Egypt, instigator of the reconciliation process, is interested in covering up its failure. It is therefore likely that the process will be frozen for several weeks. However, Egyptian intelligence will wait for what it considers to be a suitable opportunity to renew contacts between Fatah and Hamas.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.