Maghazi Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip • From the time he was a boy, Ali al-Manama dreamed of joining the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Hamas movement. His commitment intensified when his father, a Qassam fighter, was killed by an Israeli drone in 2001 as he fired mortar shells over the border. Ali joined up at 15, relatives said, and by 23 had risen to be a commander in this neighborhood in the midsection of this coastal Palestinian territory.
On Friday, at the funeral of a fellow fighter, Manama leaned over the body and said, “I’ll join you soon, God willing,” recalled a cousin who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Mahmoud.
His wish to die fighting and become a martyr — and the honor it would bring in his community — was fulfilled Saturday morning at 7:30, though the missile struck him not while he was in active combat but talking on a cellphone that Israeli intelligence may have used to track his whereabouts.
“He had been telling us all week about all the achievements of Qassam,” Mahmoud said. “When he heard about the rockets in Israel, he would be very proud.”
Manama was one of as many as 15,000 Qassam fighters who are responsible for most of the rocket blitzes that have blanketed southern Israel and reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the five days since the brigade’s operations commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated, experts say.
Highly organized and increasingly professionalized yet still secretive and cultlike, Qassam is emblematic of Hamas’ struggle to balance its history as a resistance movement and its governing role in Gaza since 2007.
Israel has blamed the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza on the fact that Qassam and Hamas are inextricable, and military storehouses are woven into residential neighborhoods. Most Qassam fighters have day jobs — as police officers, university professors, ministry clerks, and Manama’s relatives said he had been sleeping at home even during last week’s widening war.
Jabari in recent years had both increased the military branch’s political power and become a popular hero whose visage adorned posters and billboards throughout the Gaza Strip.
With an expanding arsenal and financing provided by Iran, Syria, Sudan and other foreign sources, Qassam expanded and matured under Jabari, adopting clear training regimens and chains of command. Last year he even negotiated with Israel to return an Israeli sergeant, Gilad Shalit — whose kidnapping he had engineered five years earlier — in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Yet Qassam remains a fundamentalist jihadi enterprise whose culture and goals — terrorizing and obliterating Israel — resemble those of ragtag militia cells.
“The point of departure shouldn’t be that we have a state and within a state we have institutions and within the institutions you have a division of labor,” cautioned Shaul Mishal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University who wrote a book on Hamas. “Hamas maybe dreams about being a state, and Qassam, sometimes they delude themselves that they are an army, but at the end I think their basic perception is that they’re part and parcel of a community. It’s blurred boundaries between the political activities and the military operations.”
Named for a Syrian who was killed in 1935 while battling the British occupation of what was then known as Palestine, the brigades made their first strike on Jan. 1, 1992, killing a rabbi in the former Kfar Darom settlement, not far from here. It has grown over two decades into by far the largest and strongest of Gaza’s many militant factions — though others have also been lobbing rockets into Israel in recent days and months — with a strong sociological pull on the Gaza population. The welcome banner over the entrance to this refugee camp is signed by the Qassam. Mosques are decorated with Qassam slogans and pictures of its more than 800 fallen fighters. Those who know active brigade members use them as conduits with the Hamas authorities, to speed passage through the Rafah crossing into Egypt or help resolve problems with the police.
When a fighter dies, his comrades show up in force on the third and final day of tent-sitting and set up a projector to show a film about the fallen’s achievements. Qassam also takes responsibility for ferreting out suspected collaborators with Israel, like the one it took credit for executing in a public square on Friday.
“It’s no longer a secret that the Qassam has the final word in Gaza,” said Adner Abu Amr, dean of journalism and political science lecturer at Umah University in Gaza. “He who has a relation with a commander of Qassam, he considers himself the holder of a diplomatic passport. You have a password that opens all doors.”
Jonathan Schanzer, author of the 2008 book “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine,” said Qassam has had four distinct phases. The first was a single-minded focus on suicide bombings, until Yahya Ayyash, the engineer of that strategy, was killed in 1996, when the cellphone he was holding was blown up remotely. Leading up to the start of the second intifada in 2000, Hamas joined forces with its rival Fatah faction and the brigades expanded suicide bombings but also began using rockets they called Qassam.
Over the last decade, Mohammed Deif — who was severely injured in 2003 but technically remains Qassam’s commander— upgraded and expanded rocket production and import, and Jabari professionalized operations, culminating in the Shalit deal.
With the death of Jabari, a charismatic figure influential with Hamas leaders inside and outside Gaza, “They are off balance for sure,” Schanzer said. “Every time this happens it forces change, it forces adaptation.”
But Qassam “has long operated in a decentralized structure, so that if its leadership is decapitated it will always find new leaders to rise up,” he added. “It’s compartmentalized. They work in cells. So even if he was the leader, there are other leaders.”
A 2009 paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy contains an organizational chart of the Qassam Brigades showing Gaza divided into six geographic areas, each with its own commander reporting to Jabari. Each also has separate artillery, antitank and antiaircraft units as well as snipers, engineers and infantry, according to the paper, titled “Hamas in Combat,” with forcewide units handling communications, logistics, smuggling, weapons, intelligence and public affairs.
“Almost by any definition they have become more institutionalized,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst who covers the Palestinian territories for the International Crisis Group. “They more or less have been keeping a calm in Gaza. A very imperfect calm, and one that has escalations every three or four or five months, but they are the party that Egypt has gone to ensure that things don’t get out of control.”
Abu Amr, who has followed Qassam closely since its inception, said most fighters join at the age of 16 or 17, and spend about a year in religious indoctrination, security education, and finally combat training before secret induction ceremonies in which they take an oath on the Koran. But Gaza is a 150-square-mile strip with 1.5 million people who know one another’s business, and parents are proud when their sons enlist.
Banners and plaques, in homes and on streets, display the brigade’s signature seal: an M-16 rifle in front of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, with a green Hamas flag and green copy of the Quran. “No God but Allah,” it says. “You did not kill them, it’s God who killed them.”
After the current conflagration began, Abu Amr’s only son, Mohammed, 15, changed the profile picture on his Facebook page, to Jabari from Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer star of Real Madrid. And what if Mohammed, the eldest of Abu Amr’s six children, decides that he, like Ali al-Manama, wants to be a Qassam fighter?
“It will be hard for me — I will be sad, and his mother as well,” Abu Amr said, aware that martyrdom is both the aspiration and the expectation of those who take the oath. “But there are something called the hard choices. He’s not the first and he’s not going to be the last one. My only condolence will be that he has gone for the sake of a national cause.”
A lethal threat, threaded into society
Highly organized and increasingly professional, Qassam is emblematic of Hamas’ struggle to balance its history as a resistance movement and its governing role in Gaza since 2007.
Israel has blamed the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza on the fact that Qassam and Hamas are inextricable, and military storehouses are woven into residential neighborhoods. Most Qassam fighters have day jobs — as police officers, university professors or ministry clerks.