Israel dealt a body blow to Islamic Jihad Monday, killing one of its most senior Palestinian leaders and exacerbating tensions between Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, and Hamas. The result could make a ceasefire with Israel that much harder to reach.
Rames Harb’s charred body was carried out of a 14-storey office building in central Gaza, just before 4 o’clock in the afternoon. About 45 minutes earlier, the building, a media centre that is home to Palestinian and international journalist organizations in Gaza, was struck by an Israeli missile.
Mr. Harb and four Jihad colleagues were in their third-floor office when the missile came through their front window.
The colleagues were seriously injured, but Mr. Harb’s clothes were blown right off him and his body burned from top to bottom.
He probably never knew what hit him, but his organization does.
Standing amid the broken glass and shattered concrete shortly after the attack, journalists from the building said Israeli authorities had warned them the day before to stay away from their offices. Mr. Harb and his associates must not have gotten the message. They were alone in the building when the attack came. And while Jihad members are livid at Israel for killing their Gaza City leader, they also are angry at Hamas for the ruling group’s apparent willingness to accept Israel’s terms for a ceasefire.
It verges on collaboration, they say.
Israel bombed dozens more targets in the Gaza Strip and militants in the Gaza Strip fired 110 rockets at southern Israel on Monday, causing no casualties. Intense diplomatic efforts to craft a ceasefire agreement continued, with United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki-moon shuttling from Cairo to Jerusalem and President Barack Obama pressing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to use his influence with Hamas leaders to broker a stop to rocket launches from Gaza.
But Hamas, which has governed the densely populated Gaza Strip, is not the only player.
Islamic Jihad says it wants to fight the Israelis, not just fire rockets that get shot down. Ismalic Jihad members are said to have been more involved in combat with Israeli forces when they invaded Gaza in January, 2009, and said to have suffered more severe casualties.
They also say they won’t agree to stop firing rockets in the future, a position that would bring them into real conflict with Hamas should it agree to an Israeli demand that Hamas guarantee that all other militias in the Gaza Strip stop firing rockets and mortars into Israel.
Hamas officials insist they are not selling out to Israel when they indicate they are prepared to deal.
“The only ceasefire Hamas will agree to is one in which Israel agrees to stop all aggression and to end the siege [on Gaza], explained Mushir Masry, a leading Hamas MP. If Israel does that, he said, “it’s a deal worth having.”
Nabil Shaath, a prominent minister in the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, made a rare visit to his native Gaza Monday to wave the PA flag and “to show Israel it can’t divide the Palestinians [between those in Gaza and those in the West Bank].”
“We are one people,” he said, “and we’ll stay that way.”
On the subject of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, he agreed that it would be good for all Palestinians, “provided Israel is made to adhere to it, too.”
Not every senior Palestinian official is keen to have a ceasefire, however, at least not yet.
Ayman Batniji, spokesman for the Hamas police force and a charismatic imam at a downtown Gaza mosque, was wandering through Shifa Hospital Monday afternoon.
Since police headquarters had been destroyed in the wee hours of Sunday morning – the new facility had only been open for six days – Mr. Batniji, dressed in a stylish brown leather jacket, had been without an office. His views, however, have a home among many in Hamas’s security forces.
On the subject of an Israeli invasion, he all but declared: Bring ’em on.
“It will be a big disaster for the Zionists if they enter Gaza,” Mr. Batniji said. “We’ve got 10,000 men willing to sacrifice themselves to kill as many of the Jews as possible.”
“These people [the Israelis] never learn,” Mr. Batniji said. “They lost in 2000 [when they pulled out of Lebanon]; they lost in 2005 [when they withdrew their forces from Gaza]; they lost in 2006 [when they retreated from Lebanon, again] and they lost in 2009 [when they ended their attack on Hamas in Gaza].
“They will lose even bigger this time,” he predicted.
Clearly, it is not an easy path for Hamas to agree to a ceasefire.
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