Gaza City – Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, has insisted that Palestinian factions in the war-ravaged territory will not abandon armed resistance against Israel, noting recently: “The weapon of resistance is as holy as the holiness of the Palestinian cause and the land.”
He said he would be willing to disarm local groups if Israel was also stripped of its weapons, but 57 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank oppose Israeli efforts to disarm the strip, according to a recent survey – while another 86 percent support launching rockets from Gaza if the Israeli-Egyptian blockade continues.
“If Hamas gives in to [disarmament], we’ll have Israeli tanks driving through our homes again, like the first Intifada,” Gaza City resident Abu Kareem, 38, told Al Jazeera. “We don’t want to return to those days. We survived the Intifada … and welcomed the resistance.”
Our people have to defend themselves using all methods, and that can't be achieved without weapons.
The father of three added that a few years ago, he was against armed resistance and instead supported Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But his views have since changed. “Palestinian mortars forced Israeli settlers to leave Gaza, and it will be the Palestinian resistance which ends the occupation,” Kareem said.
Since this summer’s 51-day war, the public mood in Gaza has been largely supportive of local armed groups. According to political analysts, this support is due in large part to the ongoing failure of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
While Hamas says it won the war, more than 2,130 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, 18,000 housing units were destroyed and 110,000 people remain displaced in Gaza. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers were also killed, along with four Israeli civilians.
Last month, Abbas suggested that Gaza’s demilitarisation may happen after the planned general elections , noting this would unite Palestinian military power under a single authority. But senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar says his movement refuses to be disarmed: “There is no weapon except the weapon of resistance, and any weapon that is directed on the chest of resistance fighters is the weapon of a traitor.”
Zyad Miqdad, a professor of Islamic law at the Islamic University in Gaza, told Al Jazeera he also objects to local Palestinian factions giving up their weapons.
“We found that neighbouring states support the oppressor… Our people have to defend themselves using all methods, and that can’t be achieved without weapons,” he said.
Israel, however, has been adamant in its demand for Gaza-based groups to disarm. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently said that ” disarming the coastal strip was not on the immediate horizon , but should be kept in the forefront of international public opinion”.
“Nobody will bring about disarmament but us,” Lieberman added. “Nobody else will go from house to house like us.”
Exactly how Israel seeks to disarm Palestinian groups in Gaza is unclear, and political analyst Ibrahim al-Madhoun, an expert on Hamas affairs, said the Palestinian faction would never let it happen. “Palestinian factions were not defeated in the last war, and there is no party that has the power to disarm Palestinian resistance,” he said. “Disarmament can only happen in the case of defeat, and Palestinian resistance has not been defeated.”
Last month, on a tour of the destroyed Gaza neighbourhood of Khuzaa, Haniyeh said people in Gaza “will not compromise on resistance weapons for the reconstruction of our homes or give up our principles”.
Meanwhile, Ismail al-Ashqar, a Hamas leader and head of the security file of the non-operating Palestinian Legislative Council, said: “Resistance is the only weapon guaranteed to break the siege and reconstruct Gaza.”
The place of armed resistance in the Palestinian struggle dates back to the Palestinian revolution in 1918, when the British Mandate started, and subsequently the 1936 general strike. It developed further after the 1968 revolution.
When Hamas emerged during the first Intifada in 1987, its military wing – known as the al-Qassam Brigades – used a variety of weapons. In the beginning it was mostly light weapons, such as Kalashnikovs, grenades and homemade bombs. But in the early 2000s, al-Qassam introduced homemade rockets and mortars that could reach between three and four kilometres of the Jewish settlements in Gaza. By the 2012 war, these rockets could reach as far as Tel Aviv.
While the first Intifada relied primarily on unarmed civil disobedience and stone-throwing, the Oslo years – after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – witnessed several politically motivated assassinations of Palestinian fighters, including Imad Akel, killed in 1993, and Yahia Ayash, a bomb maker assassinated in 1996.
At the start of the second Intifada, Hamas developed a new rocket known as the Qassam 1, which had a range of four kilometres from Gaza’s borders; Israel reacted by assassinating Hamas officials of all levels, including military and political leaders. “The first Hamas rockets fired from Gaza created a competition among Palestinian resistance groups,” Madhoun told Al Jazeera. The armed wing of Islamic Jihad built a homemade rocket named al-Quds, the Palestinian Resistance Committee built Nasser, and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades built the Aqsa rocket.
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Over the past 13 years, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have gone from firing primitive, homemade rockets that caused very little damage unless they hit a target directly, to newer, more advanced weaponry. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 made it possible for armed groups to get stronger, while the chaos in Libya became a source for weapons, Madhoun said.
This also garnered them more local support, according to Kareem. “In the 2012 war, we were thrilled when we heard that an M75 rocket had hit Tel Aviv,” he said. “It made Israelis feel some of the fear we felt.”
The M75 is believed to be the first rocket smuggled into Gaza from Iran through tunnels underneath the Gaza-Egypt border, and was later copied and made locally. The letter “M” in its name refers to Ibrahim Maqadma, a top Hamas leader assassinated by Israel in 2003. More recently, the J80 and J160 rockets were used during the 2014 war and named after assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari.
Gaza counts approximately 17 political and military factions: Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the largest, followed by the Palestinian Resistance Committee (PRC). Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are inspired by Islamic thinking, while PRC is a group of people who split from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Left-wing groups such as the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine also have armed wings, while the Palestinian Democratic Union, Mubadra and Hizb al-Shaab do not.
Abbas has always been against the militarisation of the Intifada. His efforts have focused for years on diplomatic channels, seeking recognition at the United Nations and lobbying countries that could help promote a Palestinian state.
Hamas sees this as insufficient, given that the United States and the European Union continue to push Abbas for talks with Israel. Hamas sees these talks as futile, according to top Hamas leader Salah al-Bardawil, a member of the non-functioning Palestinian Legislative Council. Bardawil says no one has the right to disarm the resistance, and Madhoun believes it is unlikely that the PA will be able to disarm Hamas, as it attempted in the early 1990s – especially now that Hamas has heavier weapons.
Ultimately, scepticism among Palestinian resistance groups towards disarmament is influenced by past negative experiences, Madhoun said, citing the slaughter of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.
“People in Gaza, according to surveys, say they refuse any disarmament of Hamas or other Palestinian factions… The public in Gaza feels that having arms is the only way for liberation and self-defence,” he said.