- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

JERUSALEM — The shadowy military wing of Hamas went public yesterday, revealing the names of its top commanders and outlining the history and increasing sophistication of its attacks against Israel.

The move marked the latest salvo in the battle for credit over Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

The Islamic group insists its fighters drove Israel out, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas credits his nonviolent approach.

The jockeying for public opinion ahead of Palestinian legislative elections next year could have lasting implications for the future makeup of the ruling Palestinian Authority and the fate of nascent peace efforts with Israel.

In a posting on its Web site — and on tens of thousands of fliers to be distributed in Palestinian towns in the coming days — the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, detailed its command structure, publishing the names of seven top commanders along with photos, biographies and interviews.

The names were known to some in Gaza, and analysts said Israeli intelligence almost certainly had all that information already, but the posting marked the first time Hamas’ military arm published intricate details of its operations, leaders and their responsibilities.

The posting was part of a new campaign by the Islamic group to glorify its fighters and burnish its credentials as a liberation movement ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

Moreover, Hamas’ decision to field candidates in the upcoming elections has made the group a de facto opposition political party — giving Palestinians the rough equivalent of a two-party system for the first time ever.

Sitting at the top of Hamas’ military command structure was Mohammed Deif, who has been No. 1 on Israel’s wanted list for years and survived three Israeli attempts to kill him.

In a videotape released last week, Mr. Deif, who has been in hiding since 1992, was shown celebrating the Gaza pullout as a victory for armed resistance and calling for continued attacks until Israel is destroyed.

Israel and the United States have called on Mr. Abbas to dismantle all Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas.

Mr. Abbas has said such a crackdown could cause a civil war and has worked to co-opt the militants into the political system instead, encouraging them to honor an informal cease-fire with Israel and participate in the election.

Mr. Abbas’ efforts thus far have largely been successful, although Israel warns that Hamas is using the present lull to rearm for a potentially deadlier round of fighting.

“Changes of government and power will be through ballots, not bullets,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

In comments posted on the Web site, Mr. Deif warned that Hamas would use force if Palestinian police tried to disarm or arrest members of the group. “We will respond to any attack, whether from the [Palestinian] Authority or from the Israelis,” Mr. Deif was quoted as saying.

Mr. Deif also said that Izzedine al Qassam would not disband and would continue to develop weapons, including rockets.

Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said Izzedine al Qassam came forward “to show the role of resistance in liberating Gaza.”

Alluding to the competition with Mr. Abbas, he said: “[The militants] felt that there are some people who wanted to downplay the role of the resistance.”

Mr. Abbas also is trying to gain political capital from the Israeli pullout, which he says is a victory for his policy of peaceful negotiations.

In a visit to a Gaza City school at the start of the school year yesterday, Mr. Abbas said the withdrawal will improve daily life. “God willing, the people will live in peace and security,” Mr. Abbas told students. “The Israeli attacks will end, and then people will enjoy freedom of movement.”

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