West_Bank_barrier_Israel_Gaza_Jonas Moffat

A Death in Gaza: Israel and Hamas on the Brink

Last week a senior member of Hamas’s military wing named Mazen Faqha was shot dead outside his home in Tel el Hawa, on the Gaza Strip, by unknown gunmen. The timing and the tactics used in the killing, in which Faqha was shot in the head repeatedly at close range with a silenced pistol, appear to point to a professional assassination. Hamas have already directed the blame towards Israel, however given the wider geopolitical situation in the Levant, an escalation in tensions comes at a dangerous time for Gaza.

Mazen Faqha was a leading member of Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedeen al Qassam Brigades. Born and typically based out of the West Bank, in 2003 Faqha was sentenced to nine terms of life imprisonment in Israel for his role in planning a suicide bombing which killed nine Israelis. In 2011, Faqha was set free as part of the prisoner-swap that saw captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Faqha was delivered from prison to the Gaza Strip rather than the West Bank due to Israeli concerns that should he be released back to his homeland, he would immediately rejoin the militant movement. He remained in Gaza until his recent death.

Most Palestinian factions now appear to agree that Israel was behind the assassination. Israel had recently accused Faqha of planning further attacks, and while the government has declined to comment on the killing, the Israeli military has been placed on high alert in anticipation of retaliatory attacks from Hamas. Former Israeli military intelligence officer Alon Eviatar, talking to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, said it was possible that Faqha was killed by Palestinian political rivals, however judging from the professionalism of the killing it was more likely the work of Mossad; Israel’s intelligence organisation. Faqha’s murder also appeared to be similar in style to the assassination of Tunisian drone expert Mohamed Zaouari in Sfax in 2016, which the group also blamed on Israel after Zaouari was found dead at the wheel of his car, having been shot at close range multiple times.

While the style of the killing – a close-range barrage of accurately-placed rounds from a silenced pistol – does seem consistent with previous assassinations blamed on Mossad, Faqha’s line of business has generated a wide repertoire of potential enemies whom could take blame for this. Faqha is believed to have been involved in the arms smuggling businesses that made use of al Qassam’s Gaza-Sinai tunnel network, and a deal gone wrong could plausibly have motivated any number of the militant and criminal groups who profit from this trade to turn on him. The Egyptian government has also long been keen to see al Qassam’s Gaza strip presence reduced, as the smuggling tunnels leading into the Sinai are believed to be a source of income and materiel for Islamic State affiliates on the peninsula. Egypt and Israel have cooperated closely on security matters in recent years, including the targeting of these tunnel networks, and as such a joint operation by the two nations also cannot be ruled out.

Multiple Palestinian militant groups also compete for influence within Gaza, and inter-factional political rivalries have previously motivated killings in the territory. Hamas is believed to have recently conducted several arrests of Salafi leaders in Gaza following a similar series of high profile arrests in late 2016, and if true, the close timing of these detentions to the killing may suggest a link. Internal rivalries within Hamas and the al Qassam Brigades also may be involved. While Hamas is typically perceived as a unified organization, the reality is that it is a deeply fractured movement. Internal rivalries have been deepening since 2012, when several factions refused to cooperate with Syria and Iran in Syria’s civil war, and economic disputes within Palestinian territory have only exacerbated this.

Thousands of Hamas supporters marched through the streets of Gaza this weekend for Faqha’s funeral, while the group’s leaders pledged retribution against those found responsible. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas official, also called for a crackdown on Palestinian collaborators during the rally, leading to speculation that the killers may have been hired locals. Gaza has since been placed on lockdown as Hamas hunts for the assassins, and while the search is ongoing, the group has prevented any men younger than 45 years old from leaving Gaza. A media blackout on details of the investigation has also been imposed locally.

While the threats of retribution seemed relatively typical, Hamas has specified that it will not respond to the assassination with rocket attacks on Israel. This indicates a hesitance to escalate tensions militarily which is unsurprising, given the current state of affairs regionally. Whatever the motive behind the killing, this comes at an inconvenient time for Hamas. With most of the group’s sympathetic regional allies’ attention and funding currently being directed towards Syria, the group would lack the usual level of international support it would require to conduct a military escalation with Israel.

The increasingly right wing government in Tel Aviv would however almost certainly benefit from renewed fighting with Hamas, as militarily they are now likely to hold the upper hand, and through increased cooperation with Egypt would almost certainly inflict significant damage on the cash-starved militant group. Meanwhile the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump has given Israel a relatively free hand since the inauguration, and as such any military action would likely see at least tentative support from the U.S. All this also takes place against a backdrop of a recently intensified settlement building program by Israel in the West Bank, which has escalated tensions with the Palestinian community significantly.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to distract the public from the deepening arms procurement corruption scandal, a successful military engagement in Gaza would likely be a welcome distraction. The outcome now appears to lie with Hamas, the manhunt underway in Gaza, and its ability to control its armed factions in a period of high tension.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.

 Photo credit: Jonas Moffat

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