Frontpage Interview's guest today is Jonathan Schanzer, deputy executive director at the Jewish Policy Center. He has served as a counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a research fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine. Daniel Pipes wrote the foreword to the book and some of the research was undertaken at Pipes' Middle East Forum.
FP: Jonathan Schanzer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Schanzer: Thanks, Jamie. Great to be back.
FP: Recent reports indicate that Al-Qaeda is at war with Hamas. What exactly is going on here?
Schanzer: Reports are still sketchy because the international media cannot operate freely in Gaza, but there are some things we know for sure.
Hamas launched a “security operation” against Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers for God) in the southern Strip over the weekend. JAA is a radical, salafi organization that has loose ties to the al-Qaeda network.
The standoff began when JAA took over a mosque in the Gaza town of Rafah after Friday prayers. JAA cleric, Abdul Latif Moussa, declared Gaza to be under new Islamist rule. Moussa implied that Hamas’ rule in Gaza was illegitimate from an Islamic perspective.
Hamas does not allow political challengers in the Gaza Strip. It has a brutal record of repression against the Fatah faction since taking over the Gaza Strip by force in June 2007. It should come as no surprise that Hamas has reacted with equal brutality to JAA.
The Hamas operation ended on Saturday afternoon, once the Hamas forces were able to confirm that they had killed JAA’s leader. According to a Hamas spokesman, 22 people were killed in the clash, including 7 Hamas members, and six bystanders, including one eight year-old girl. An estimated 120 Palestinians were injured in the clashes. At least 90 people were arrested by the Hamas police.
FP: How is Hamas spinning this to the media?
Schanzer: Hamas sources have explained that JAA was a radical terrorist group that was behind recent café, salon and CD store bombings throughout the Gaza Strip. One source even alleged that JAA was behind the recent bombing of the June 22 wedding of members of the family of Fatah leader, Mohammed Dahlan. There are also reports indicating that the group was implicated in a thwarted operation against Israel in June that included ten gunmen and several horses carrying explosives.
Hamas, all the while, has tried to portray itself as the stabilizing force in Gaza that sought to convert JAA to “moderate Islam.” This is ironic, of course. Hamas’ interpretation of Islam is not moderate. For one, the group has made its name through killing Israeli civilians through suicide bombing and firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel population centers. Moreover, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the group’s patron.
Hamas’ attempts to portray itself as moderate are dangerous. They must be viewed in the larger context. There is a chorus of voices inside Washington that advocate negotiating with Hamas. This most recent clash with JAA is an attempt to reinforce the notion that Hamas is a moderate and rational actor.
FP: So has the mainstream media bungled this?
Schanzer: So far, the mainstream media has been minimal and lacking. Those who have reported on this have basically regurgitated what others have reported. Still, most reporters have been careful to not describe Hamas as “moderate.”
What’s interesting, however, is the fact that we have 22 dead Palestinians, including young children, and 120 injured, and yet the media is quiet. In other words, when Hamas kills fellow Palestinians, the media is virtually silent. Yet, when Israel responds to Hamas aggression (avoiding civilian casualties at all costs), it’s front page news.
My question: why are Palestinians killed in an inter-Palestinian conflict less newsworthy than Palestinians killed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
FP: What about the reports that Fatah is involved with al-Qaeda?
Schanzer: This is tough to confirm. Hamas says it has documents proving that JAA is actually financed by some Arab countries and even associates of the aforementioned Mohammed Dahlan. Hamas claims to have intercepted JAA communiqués sent between calling for attacks on Hamas institutions and leaders to destabilize its regime. It remains to be seen whether this is true.
FP: The prevailing wisdom is that the Palestinians don’t have strong ties to al-Qaeda. Is this true?
Schanzer: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has warned since 2007 that the Hamas coup in Gaza marked the beginning of cooperation between Hamas and al-Qaeda. This is not so hard to imagine. After all, al-Qaeda has historically exploited areas of weak central authority. Gaza fits that bill. Al-Qaeda also seeks to partner with other Islamist groups. Hamas fits that bill.
Over the last nine years, since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in late September 2000, the Israelis have uncovered al-Qaeda propaganda in both the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis have also warned of meetings between the two groups, including one in Kashmir with al-Qaeda affiliate Hizbul Muhahideen in 2006. Some Hamas fighters even trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda. Lastly, there are indications that al-Qaeda is financing Hamas. For example, in 2006, Hamas chief Khaled Meshal met in Yemen with Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a man the U.S. Treasury designated in 2004 for his ties to al-Qaeda. Zindani promised “support” in the form of “money.”
FP: So why did Hamas allegedly crack down on al-Qaeda?
Schanzer: Hamas and al-Qaeda will always share a common enemy in Israel and the United States. But don’t expect Hamas to allow al-Qaeda elements to have free rein in Gaza. The July 2007 coup handed Hamas its own territory, which the group seeks to protect at all costs. Hamas would never allow al-Qaeda, or any other group, to challenge its authority.
FP: Thank you, Jonathan.
Schanzer: Thank you, Jamie.