Rivalry between Hamas, Fatah after Gaza coup

'In the Shalit deal you sent a message to Palestinian society that you understand only force.'

Mordechai Sones,

Flags of political movements Fatah and Hamas
Flags of political movements Fatah and Hamas
Flash 90

The security wings in Israeli jails are like Palestinian society in microcosm. Relations between Fatah prisoners and their Hamas peers have known ups and downs, and reached boiling points twice - in the violent Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007 and during the Shalit deal in 2011.

A series of Ynet interviews this week with some of the 104 prisoners released in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's 2013 gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas sharpens how sensitive relations between the factions are, that the Israeli eye mistakenly regards as a monolithic entity.

Immediately after the coup in Gaza, the Israel Prison Service realized that explosive devices could be brought into the prisons housing security prisoners, prompting the IPS to separate Fatah prisoners from Hamas prisoners. "The relations were not good," says Muqdad Salah, a Fatah member who murdered Yisrael Tannenbaum in Netanya in 1993. "There was a mess. There was no violence, but each side talked about the other side, hated the other." He said there were people in the prison who wanted to calm the situation and called for a separation between life outside and life in prison, but the area burning outside took precedence over everything.

"After the coup in Gaza, everything changed," says Ziad Ranimat, a Fatah man who took part in the murder of Meir Ben Yair and Michal Cohen in Ella Valley's Massuah Forest. "There were people in the prison whose relatives were killed in the clashes in Gaza, so we were separated. It was a very tense period, and we saw our friends being murdered in the streets."

How did Hamas prisoners behave in those days?
"They were happy inside the prison, and we told them, 'How are you happy when we're fighting each other?' And they replied, 'You are collaborators.'"

A year earlier, in June 2006, it looked different. Hamas, in cooperation with two other small organizations, launched a strategic attack on the Gaza border that ended with a success that they themselves did not expect: the live capture of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped into the Gaza Strip. The prisoners in the prisons were bedside themselves with excitement. Fatah prisoners too.

"A man is in the sea, he doesn't know how to swim and he starts to drown, so if he sees straw, he'll also grab a straw to save himself. A prisoner serving life imprisonment - only Gilad will free him," said Yousef Arshad, a Fatah member who served a prison sentence for murdering collaborators, about those critical hours.

- So you were happy?
"The majority were happy, so was I. I told the jailers, 'Inshallah, I and Gilad will be released, each to his mother.'"

In the meantime Gilad Shalit became the subject of popular conversation among the prisoners. "We talked about him almost every day. Every little issue that came up in the news - we'd discuss it. We understood that Gilad's release meant the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners," recalls Asmat Mansur, who took part in the 1993 murder of Chaim Mizrachi of Beit El. "We were afraid he'd commit suicide. We hoped he was being watched well so he couldn't commit suicide, because he was in a really unbearable situation. No one can go a year or five years underground without having a connection with the world."

The struggle of the parents Aviva and Noam Shalit to release their son touched the hearts of the veteran prisoners, but none of them concealed the interest behind or even before the empathy. "We saw their distress and the difficulties, and Karnit Goldwasser became a symbol of ours and we admired her," adds Mansur. "We saw how she struggled to find out whether her husband was alive or dead, and some prisoners wrote to Noam and Aviva Shalit, 'We see your struggle and hope that he will return safely.'"

- Did they respond?
"No, unfortunately not."

Negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit took place outside the walls of the prison. At the same time, Yihye Sinwar, who would later become the Hamas leader in Gaza, was found with him, along with Tawfiq Abu Na'im (today head of the Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip) and Ruchi Mushtaha (now a member of the Hamas leadership in Gaza). Sinwar was one of the people who could allow or destroy negotiations. Beyond his seniority, his brother Muhammad Sinwar was one of the architects of Shalit's kidnapping.

Khaled Azarq, who murdered Shimon Cohen in 1991, was one of the senior Fatah prisoners who had contacts with Hamas prisoners regarding the release list that would be demanded of Israel. "Yahya Sinwar was the head of the Hamas prisoners and he spoke to us," says Azrak. "He said the list of prisoners Hamas demanded to be released was prepared at the time of the split (between Fatah and Hamas) and that it was being fixed, but it turned out that he lied. He took care of his own release. If he had not been released, there would have been no deal."

Almost all veteran Fatah prisoners testified that in the final stages of the deal, senior Hamas figures gave them the impression that they were on the list of prisoners to be released, and according to expectations, so was the disappointment. Some claimed they did not believe for a moment that Hamas would include them in the lists, but most spoke of the great disappointment.

"On the day of the deal, when the prison gates opened, I felt bad," said Khaled Asakra, who in 1991 murdered 64-year-old French tourist Anne Ley in Bethlehem. "My friends were released and I thought, 'Why not me? Why did they leave me in prison after 20 years?'" I was very angry with them, I didn't speak to anyone. I sat on the bed and just smoked."

Regarding the implications of the deal, the veteran prisoners are divided. "Israel erred in releasing prisoners only in a prisoner exchange deal and not opposite Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]," says Mustafa al-Haj, who in 1989 murdered Friedrich Rosenfeld near Ariel. "What message do you convey, not a message of peace. It is neither right nor logical. Only blood on their hands.... In the Shalit deal you sent a message to Palestinian society that you understand only force."

Asmat Mansur believes differently: "What you did for one soldier testifies to the strength of Israeli society, when the entire society is behind a soldier and his family - this profits you. I look and envy you. I would hope in such an issue that my leadership would act like the Israeli leadership and that my society would be like Israeli society."