The clan that sabotages every Hamas truce

July 2, 2014
Sarah Benton

JJ Goldberg’s article followed by two articles from Al Monitor: can the PA survive an attack on Hamas and the powerful clan, possibly behind the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys, which Hamas cannot control.

Ramallah, July 2012:Palestinian police attack peaceful protesters demonstrating against PA / Israel co-operation. Photo by Abbas Momani /AFP/GettyImages

Unruly Hebron Clan Pushes Hamas — and Israel — to Brink

By J.J. Goldberg, Jewish Forward
July 02, 2014

Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.

The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.

The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.

The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.

Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.

One account appeared in the English-language Al-Monitor news site, written by Shlomi Eldar [below] , a former West Bank correspondent for Israeli television and now a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. More detailed accounts appeared in Hebrew in two conservative Israeli outlets, including a lengthy piece by Eldar on the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew website, The Post, and another in Maariv by military affairs reporter Assaf Gibor.

Both Eldar and Gibor describe a series of incidents in 2003 and 2004 when the Qawasmehs repeatedly sabotaged cease-fires between Israel and Hamas by staging spectacular terror attacks, each time provoking Israeli retaliation and on several occasions getting senior Gaza Hamas leaders killed. The Gush Etzion kidnap-murder appears to be a the latest in the pattern, coming two weeks after the Fatah-Hamas unity pact that was supposed to include a Hamas cessation of terror attacks.

The Qawasmeh clan has an estimated 10,000 members living in and around Hebron, a city of some 250,000. Clan lore traces its lineage back to the prophet Mohammed. The vast majority of clan members are not involved in the family terror franchise.

During the 1970s, in the early years after Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Qawasmehs figured prominently in moderate Palestinian leadership. A family-owned gift shop in the Old City of Jerusalem served as an early gathering place for Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and one member, Eid “Eddie” Qawasmeh, spoke frequently before Israeli audiences about possible coexistence between Palestinian and Jewish nationalism.

Another member, Fahd Qawasmeh, was mayor of Hebron from 1976 to 1980, and together with several other mayors was an early advocate of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. He was exiled to Lebanon in 1980 following a terrorist murder in Hebron and was quickly made a member of the PLO executive committee. He was assassinated in Amman in 1984. The perpetrators were never identified.

After the founding of Hamas in 1988, a different wing of the Qawasmeh clan rose to prominence. The first Israeli press reports on the Qawasmeh terror organization began to appear in 2003 and 2004, after a string of family members became head of Hamas in Hebron and died, one after another, in armed confrontations with Israeli security forces.

The first indication of the Qawasmehs’ intractable independence came on August 19, 2003, when a family member and an associate staged a suicide bombing on the Number 2 bus line in Jerusalem, killing 23 Israelis including seven children, the youngest aged 3 months. The bombing effectively ended a cease-fire that had begun three months earlier, in June, when Hamas agreed to a halt in terrorist attacks at the insistence of the newly appointed Palestinian Authority prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. According to Eldar, the Qawasmehs ordered the bombing in defiance of Hamas orders in retaliation for the deaths of two local Hamas operatives in a shootout with Israeli troops on August 10.

Israel responded to the bombing with the aerial assassination in Gaza of Hamas’s Number 3 leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, who was known as the head of the organization’s moderate wing and the strongest advocate of the cease-fire and opponent of suicide bombings. Hamas formally declared the cease-fire ended two days later.

The following spring Israel assassinated Hamas’s Number 1 and Number 2 leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. At that point, according to Eldar, Hamas secretly sent a message to Israel via Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman, asking for a truce: no more assassinations of Hamas leaders, no more Hamas attacks on Israelis. Sharon at that point had begun preparations for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza that would take place in August 2005, and Hamas wanted peace and quiet to establish its future base of operations there. The cease-fire went into effect in May, according to Eldar, and held for months, despite continuing terror attacks by other Palestinian factions. In August, two Qawasmeh family members blew up a pair of buses in Beer Sheva, killing 16 Israelis and foiling another cease-fire.

According to Gibor, Hamas leaders have been trapped in their cycle of destruction with the Qawasmehs by an unwritten rule that bars top leaders from condemning any attacks on Israelis. The result is that they are unable to effectively separate themselves from the actions of their uncontrollable subordinates. At the same time, they have been afraid to lose the support of the large, wealthy Qawasmeh clan, with its deep roots in Hebron, the West Bank’s most religiously devout city.

Now, however, Hamas appears to face a do or die choice. The condition of the unity pact is that Hamas ends terror attacks and agrees to enter a Fatah-led government that will continue to seek a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas is free to disapprove of the negotiations and campaign against an agreement if it’s ever reached — just as the Jewish Home Party disagrees with Netanyahu’s stated goal of reaching a two-state agreement with the Palestinian Authority — but it is expected to respect the decisions of the majority.

The pact doesn’t require Hamas to admit openly that it has accepted any of those conditions, as long as it doesn’t violate them in practice. But the Qawasmehs appear determined to force it to make that choice.

Can the PA survive Israel’s attack on Hamas?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was already in trouble, before Israel’s campaign against Hamas in response to the murdered youth.

By Geoffrey Aronson, Al Monitor
July 01, 2014

Can the Palestinian Authority survive an Israeli campaign to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas? This question is front and center on the agenda while Israel weighs its response to the murder of three teenage settlers in the West Bank.

“This tragic ending must also be the ending of Hamas!” declared Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon shortly after the discovery of the victims was announced. “We have to destroy the homes of Hamas activists, wipe out their arsenals everywhere and stop the flow of money that directly or indirectly keeps terror alive. … Make the entire Palestinian leadership pay a heavy price.”

These are terrible times for the Palestinian Authority. Already attacked by Israel for reconciling with Hamas and criticized by its own people for cooperating with Israel’s ongoing campaign of arrests and closures in the West Bank, the notable resilience of the PA is facing its greatest challenge since Operation Defensive Shield in April 2001 erased the security boundaries that had acted as a brake on Israel Defense Forces action in Area A, nominally under Palestinian control.

From the moment of its announcement, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that PA President Mahmoud Abbas walk away from the reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Abbas’ criticism of the kidnapping and killing — actions that were welcomed in Israel — was counted as an “Israeli achievement,” according to MK and former Shabak official Israel Hasson. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is close to making a decision to end the relationship with Hamas. Our interest is to turn this failure [the killings] to our political advantage by dividing the PA and Hamas.” no matter who was responsible for the abduction and killings.

The need for what Minister of Construction Uri Ariel describes as an “appropriate Zionist response” to the murders sets the stage for an even more volatile confrontation. Zvi Hauser, former director of Netanyahu’s office, told Channel Two that Israel’s response in coming days must be a “game changer. Israel must order the PA to dismantle all missiles in Gaza. If Abu Mazen won’t do it, then Israel must. The PA cannot stand aside and not do anything. The good cop-bad cop routine will not work.”

As this combustible situation unfolds, how vital is it to Israel that the Palestinian Authority continues to exist? Important to be sure, but less so than you might think.

There are three centers of power and influence regulating Israel’s interest in the PA’s existence: right-wing politicians, budget overseers and, most crucially, the security system.

All share the view that the PA’s value is measured solely against a yardstick of Israeli interests — at the top of which are security and settlement expansion.

And all agree, without any sense of irony, that Israel’s presence in the West Bank — that is, a continuation of its occupation — offers the PA its best, indeed, its only chance for survival.

In a speech yesterday, June 30, Netanyahu repeated this article of faith, noting that the evacuation of Israeli forces from the West Bank would lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

The most vociferous, and for now least decisive Israeli opponents of the PA, are politicians who regularly incite against it as a murderous organization obstructing Israel’s designs on the West Bank. The prime minister himself often finds himself in this club, whose membership has grown with the discovery of the dead teenage settlers. Others, like Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, have long found a politically comfortable and permanent seat at this table.

Bennett often sets the tone for this camp. Emerging from a recent meeting of Israel’s security cabinet, the economy minister called Abbas a “mega-terrorist.”

“A person who lines the pockets of murderers with tens of millions of shekels each month [referring to payments made to families of prisoners] is a mega-terrorist, who has not changed his ways,” Bennett told Israel Radio. In his first reaction to the killings, he said, “Now is the time for actions; not talk.”

Two authoritative and decisive voices for moderating Israel’s treatment of the PA and promoting its continued operation — the security establishment and the treasury — are arrayed against this lobby. Both argue that the PA’s existence, for all of its shortcomings, allows Israel to enjoy the best of all worlds … indeed a deluxe occupation. Israel settles without regard to ineffective Palestinian opposition. It enjoys the security advantages of competent Palestinian policing, trained and equipped by US and European officers — all this at no cost to hard-pressed Israeli taxpayers. And when deemed necessary, the IDF goes anywhere and everywhere, as it has in recent weeks, without so much as informing its vaunted Palestinian security partners.

“While we have undermined the PA repeatedly and constantly, this was no reflection of lack of concern with its possible collapse,” explained a former top Israeli official. “Indeed, time and again the announced withholding of taxes was preceded by delivery of future remittances. … Likewise, the ‘under consideration’ menu of ‘penalties’ for ‘misbehavior’ always exceeds actual deprivations or other punishments.”

“On security,” he continued, “it is the unanimous position of all security agencies is that our ability to provide security shall be undermined to an unacceptable degree should the PA’s coordination be undone. And these agencies are a powerful lobby” — and one that Netanyahu and his right-wing fire-breathers, for all their bluster, have not yet challenged. The popular Israeli fury at Palestinian responsibility for the killings, however, will no doubt increase the pressure on Netanyahu to act decisively against them.

Unlike Washington, Israel does not view the PA as a strategic destination, but rather as the latest, and if necessary dispensable, way station on a very long road in its campaign to defeat the ability of Palestinians to act in a sovereign manner. But the Obama administration’s views on the need to preserve the PA cannot be ignored by Israel. “Keeping the PA alive is a US redline,” explained a former top defense official.

Israel’s support for the PA is nevertheless conditional on PA actions that complement Israel’s drive to subordinate Palestinians — most importantly security cooperation, recently described by Abbas as “sacred.”

Abbas’ remarks were pilloried across the Palestinian spectrum. And public disenchantment with continuing security cooperation has resulted in public assaults on the Palestinian police themselves.

Such actions erode popular Palestinian support for the PA. As Israel’s campaign moves into high gear, continuing support by the PA leadership and institutions like the police for Israeli actions will become increasingly untenable, even personally risky. At best, such acts may win grudging acknowledgement from Israel but nothing more, even as they alienate the PA from its seething popular base.

For the last 50 years Israel has empowered — and discarded — a series of Palestinian partners in the West Bank and Gaza, starting with the pro-Hashemite mayors it inherited after 1967. Israel has proven able to adapt very well to the challenge of enlisting Palestinians; the PA is only the latest and most successful partnership according to Israel’s yardstick. But as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians threatened to escalate, it would be a grave error to assume that Israel remains wedded as a matter of principle to the partnership with the PLO in place since 1993, or that policies of occupation and settlement won’t survive the passing of the PA.

The wrecked Qawasmeh family home. “They didn’t leave one glass unbroken,” says Umm Sharif Qawasmeh. Photo by Kelly Lynn

Accused kidnappers are rogue Hamas branch

The Hebron-based Qawasmeh family may not be under the direct control of Hamas, but its actions have placed Hamas in Israel’s sights with regard to the kidnapping of three Israeli students. On June 26, the Shin Bet allowed the release of the names of the two men suspected of orchestrating the kidnapping of the three yeshiva (religious high school) students in the Etzion settlement bloc. The suspects are Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha.

By Shlomi Eldar, trans. Danny Wool
June 29, 2014

According to Palestinian sources, Palestinian security forces had already reported to Israel that these two suspects had disappeared from Hebron within 24 hours of the abduction. That was the first clue in the investigation and the reason why Israel pointed an accusatory finger at the Hamas infrastructure in Hebron. But while Israel continues to accuse the Hamas movement and its leadership of being responsible for the abduction, Palestinian security forces attribute the abduction to the Qawasmeh clan of Hebron specifically. Though the clan is known for identifying with Hamas, it also has a well-earned reputation as troublemakers. Not only does it tend to ignore the movement’s leaders. It even acts counter to the policies being advocated by the movement.

That is why officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA) were shocked by the timing of the three boys’ abduction, just two weeks after the establishment of a Palestinian unity government. After all, the very creation of this new coalition came with the assumption that the Hamas leadership had come to terms with reality and moderated their positions.

Enter the Qawasmeh clan. The total number of people belonging to the clan is estimated at about 10,000, making it one of the three largest clans in the Mount Hebron region. At least 15 members of the family were killed during the second intifada, nine of them while committing suicide attacks against Israel. All of the terrorists lived in the Abu Qatila neighborhood, within a radius of less than 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from one another. Whenever the head of the terrorist organization within the clan was assassinated or arrested by Israel, one of his brothers or cousins was selected to replace him.

For instance, when the head of the group, Abdullah Qawasmeh, was assassinated during the second intifada, he was succeeded by his cousin Basel Qawasmeh. When Basel was assassinated by Israel, the person selected to succeed him was Imad Qawasmeh, who was apprehended by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in October 2003.

Marwan Qawasmeh, the man behind the abduction, emerged as a dominant figure in the clan after Israel arrested Imad Qawasmeh and sentenced him to life in prison.

Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste. If there is a single family throughout the PA territories whose actions can be blamed for Israel’s assassination of the political leadership of Hamas, it is the Qawasmeh family of Hebron.

On Aug. 19, 2003, after a tahadiyeh was reached between Israel and all of the Palestinian factions, with the support of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, two suicide bombers blew themselves up on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem. Some 23 Israelis were killed in the attack, including seven children. All of the passengers on the bus were on their way back from prayers at the Western Wall to mark the end of the Sabbath. Most of them were yeshiva students. The attack put an abrupt end to the tahadiyeh just 52 days after it was announced. The bombing was intended to avenge Israel’s assassination of Abdullah Qawasmeh three days before the tahadiyeh came into force. The Qawasmeh family planned and implemented the attack during a cease-fire, which was supposed to have ended the second intifada, a cease-fire that had the support of Yasser Arafat, then-PA chairman, his Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and, of course, Yassin, the leader of Hamas.

Two days later, Israel assassinated one of the most prominent leaders of the political wing of Hamas in Gaza, Ismail Abu Shanab.

Abu Shanab was considered one of the more moderate members of the movement at the time. In a conversation he had with Hasan Abu Zayad, an Arabic-language reporter for the Israeli Public Radio (Kol Israel), Abu Shanab said that the attack in Jerusalem was a serious error by people who disobey orders, that the matter should be investigated and that those responsible should be punished. Instead, what happened was that Abu Shanab was assassinated by Israel, the intifada heated up again, and as part of the armed conflict, Israel assassinated the two senior leaders of Hamas, Yassin and his heir, Abd al-Aziz Rantisi.

Nor did the Qawasmeh family comply with the understandings reached between Israel and Hamas after the assassination of the movement’s senior leaders. Following these assassinations, Israel contacted the head of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, through the Egypt’s then-Minister of Intelligence Omar Suleiman, saying that if Hamas stopped its attacks, Israel would reciprocate by putting a stop to its assassination campaign. It was because of these understandings that Hamas did not avenge the assassination of its leaders. Half a year later (Aug. 31, 2004), however, two terrorists, Nassim Subhi Jabari and Ahmed Qawasmeh, left Hebron to launch a double suicide attack on two buses in Beersheba, killing 16 Israelis.

So once again, Suleiman was forced to call then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a message from Meshaal that what had happened was a mishap. The armed gang from Hebron had been acting counter to Hamas’ new policy.

The same is true now. Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha have brought Hamas to a place where its leadership never intended to go. By kidnapping the three Israelis, the Qawasmeh family decided to take the leaders there anyway. In each of the previous events, Hamas’ political leaders were forced to align themselves with the movement’s military wing. Not one of them dared to say anything. They wouldn’t dare condemn a kidnapping ostensibly intended to release Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, or to denounce some terrorist attack, ostensibly launched in retaliation to the assassination by Israel of some Hamas activist or other.

And now for the dispute between Israel and Abbas. We have already noted that Israel holds Hamas responsible for the abduction, while the PA considers the actions of the Qawasmeh family a “gray area,” which cannot be used as an indicator for what is happening within Hamas. That is why Abbas is not taking apart yet the unity government he formed just two weeks before the abduction, a government that was supposed to represent a fresh start in the relationship between Fatah and Hamas.

That is also why Meshaal said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “We cannot deny nor can we confirm that Hamas committed the kidnapping.” Meshaal also added that he has no idea where the abducted teens are.

At this point, it is quite possible to believe Meshaal when he says that he knew nothing about the kidnapping and that he has no idea what happened to the teens. But Meshaal and the leaders of Hamas have a problem. As long as they don’t denounce the Qawasmeh family, and as long as they let the family take them down a dead end time after time, the leaders of the movement will be forced to pay the price.

Abu Shanab, Yassin and Rantisi paid with their lives for what the Qawasmeh family did. Hamas is all tangled up in the same trap, with and Israeli sword hovering over them again. This time, however, when the sword lands, Hamas will not be able to lay all of the blame on the rebellious Qawasmeh clan from Hebron.

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