WASHINGTON — Israel is pointing a menacing finger at a Damascus-based Hamas leader and Syrian officials who continue to grant him sanctuary, claiming that they are responsible for the recent kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and for the escalating crisis in Gaza.
Israeli officials insist that from his base of operations in Syria, the Hamas official, Khaled Mashal, ordered the kidnapping and is refusing to approve the soldier’s release. Mashal is also being accused by Israeli sources of attempting to scuttle the formation of a Palestinian unity government in the territories that could lead to an implicit recognition of Israel or future peace talks.
As Israeli forces invaded Gaza to secure the soldier’s release, Jerusalem was openly threatening Mashal, who heads Hamas’s political bureau. At the same time, Israel also sent threatening messages directly to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israel’s military spokesman confirmed Wednesday that four F-16 bombers flew over Assad’s palace in the Syrian town of Latakiya to make clear that Israel holds Syria responsible for hosting leaders of terrorist organizations. Syria confirmed the fly-over and said that its anti-aircraft forces shot at the Israeli bombers. The aircraft were sent for the show of force after Syria reportedly refused to put pressure on Mashal to release the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit.
“The Syrians showed no interest,” one Israeli official said, adding that Syria’s unwillingness to cooperate further infuriated the Israeli government.
Israel has sent messages to Damascus through the Bush administration, making clear that the presence of Mashal and his associates in Syria was unacceptable, the Forward has learned. In addition, senior members of Israel’s Cabinet told Jewish activists in Jerusalem this week that there is a need to “put pressure” on Damascus.
On Monday, in what was widely interpreted as a threat to Mashal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “We will respond to all terrorists, every terror organization, wherever they are. They know that we can reach them even when it appears to them that they are protected.” The next day, Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a retired general, told an Israeli radio station that Hamas leaders “have to understand one thing: that nobody is immune, including Khaled Mashal.”
And Vice Premier Shimon Peres, on a visit to the Shalit family, told reporters that “it is clear that the instructions for the kidnapping came from Syria.” Peres added: “Syria is hosting a man who wants to cause more casualties and kill the peace — we are aware of it. I mean Khaled Mashal. Apparently he gave the instructions, he is preventing the release [of Shalit] and Syria is overtly hosting him.”
Peres was reportedly echoing intelligence reports submitted to Israeli political leaders this week. According to press reports, Israeli intelligence intercepted contacts between Mashal and Shalit’s kidnappers, members of Hamas’s military wing.
One of Mashal’s deputies in Damascus, Muhammad Nazzal, denied the accusations but said that he and his colleagues are taking Israel’s threats seriously.
Mashal, according to knowledgeable Israeli and Palestinian sources, did more than order Monday’s plot and directed the kidnappers not to release Shalit. He also attempted to torpedo the “national unity” agreement that Palestinian factions reached Tuesday, which some see as an implicit recognition of Israel. Israeli intelligence sources even speculated that Mashal ordered the attack Monday, when representatives of the factions were on the verge of an agreement, in order to scuttle any deal.
But Hamas political leaders in the territories seemed to be shaken by Israel’s threats to target them if the soldier was not returned unharmed. Hamas leaders in the territories urged their colleagues from Fatah and other factions to speed up the talks, hoping that the agreement would portray them as political pragmatists. According to Palestinian sources who spoke with several of the negotiators, an agreement was reached but then Hamas’s representatives were informed by Mashal that the organization’s leadership opposes the deal, which, among other things, called for the formation of a “national unity government.” Still, Palestinian officials in Gaza said that such a government would be formed in two weeks.
“Recent developments have certainly exposed the rifts within Hamas’s internal and external leadership,” said Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. The task force is a Washington-based advocacy group supporting a two-state solution.
“We see a rift between members of Hamas’s government and members of the Palestinian legislative council in the West Bank and Gaza on the one hand, and the leadership in Syria on the other hand, with quite a bit of freelancing by members of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza,” said Shalom Harari, a reserve brigadier general. Harari is a former Israeli military intelligence officer who tracks Palestinian terrorist groups. Such divisions are not typical for Hamas, which always had been a centralized, disciplined group until it seized power in January’s general elections, Harari said in a phone interview from Israel.
David Makovsky, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that recent developments indicate the “Balkanization of Hamas.” In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, he said that “it would be ironic if Fatah, which was so fragmented, is replaced by a Hamas that is also becoming fragmented.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his fellow Hamas members have been working since the January general elections to form a unity government with other factions. “They predicted that a time like this would come, when they would be held accountable for bloodshed,” Harari said. “They needed to be viewed as the government of all Palestinians, not as a Hamas government,” he added.
“While seeking a political alliance with Fatah, the elected Hamas leaders also dissociated themselves from Hamas’s military wing,” Harari said. This explains the daily involvement of Hamas activists in launching homemade rockets into Israel, shattering the stability and calm that Haniyyah’s government sought. It also explains the increasingly strong link between Hamas fighters in the territories and the organization’s Damascus-based leadership.
Israel has in the past six years killed dozens of Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, but only one was assassinated in Syria, reportedly by Israeli agents. In September 2004, a bomb went off as Hamas activist Izz el-Din Sheikh-Khalil started his jeep in a Damascus neighborhood. Sheikh-Khalil was deported by Israel from Gaza in 1993 and settled in Damascus to become one of the organization’s military leaders. Israel never officially took responsibility for the attack, but Israeli security officials were anonymously quoted as saying that agents in Israel’s service had planted the bomb.
Mashal himself was the target of a botched Israeli assassination attack in the heart of an Arab capital. In 1997, Israeli Mossad agents carrying foreign passports entered Amman, Jordan, where Mashal was masterminding the organization’s international fund-raising efforts and directing some of the group’s terrorism operations. The agents attacked Mashal on the street with a syringe filled with a toxic substance, landing him in the hospital. Jordan arrested two Israeli agents. The late King Hussein agreed to release them only after a humiliated Israel turned over the antidote to the poison and agreed to release several Hamas prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader.
Seven years later, when Yassin was assassinated by Israel in Gaza, one in a series of “targeted killings” of the organization’s top leaders in the territories, Hamas decided to move its command away from Israel’s watchful eyes in the territories and appointed Mashal, at the age of 48, its overall leader.
Mashal, as Matthew Levitt writes in his new book, “Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad,” is a good example of the symbiosis — if not the convergence — between Hamas’s military and political wings. Levitt, a former FBI analyst who is now deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury department for intelligence and analysis, quotes American government documents that accuse Mashal of having personal involvement in directing Hamas cells to carry out “large attacks,” including bombings and killings of Israeli civilians. Mashal, according to the documents, maintains direct contact with Hamas’s military wing leaders in the West Bank and Gaza.
Unlike the Fatah movement of the late Yasser Arafat and other factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas was born in the territories 18 years ago. And it now dominates the Palestinian Authority. So, on several levels the emergence of a foreign-based power center would seem to be out of step with the Islamic movement’s history.
“But it serves important functions,” Harari said. According to the former Israeli military intelligence officer, it is easier for exiled leaders to recruit and train select combatants, raise funds, and create alliances with other groups and governments. Moreover, he said, it gives the political leadership inside the territories a degree of deniability when a crisis like the current one arises. But, Harari added, the emergence of a doctrinaire external leadership that imposes paralysis on the leaders inside the territories also can become a liability.
FINGER POINTING: Israeli officials say the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, left, ordered the recent kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and is refusing to permit his release. They are also blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, for providing sanctuary to Mashal and his associates.