Who killed Hamas commander Mazen Fuqaha on Friday night in Gaza? Does Hamas even know? Does it matter now that they have blamed Israel and the onus is on them to exact public revenge? And can Hamas even take revenge at a time when it wants to maintain the calm in Gaza and has limited options elsewhere?
Killings in Gaza are routinely carried out by explosives, the sophistication of which can usually indicate the source. Fuqaha was killed by anonymous gunmen who quickly melted away into the night. Israeli commandos? Rivals within Hamas? Salafists who are challenging Hamas for rule in Gaza? Egyptian intelligence? The list of potential suspects and possible motives for his assassination goes on.
Israel, of course, is the prime suspect. Fuqaha, a senior Hamas operative who was released in 2011 as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange has, ever since, been a member of the “West Bank Command”, directing the movement’s cells from Gaza.
If he had been planning a terror attack, he could have been deemed by Israel a “ticking bomb”. The unorthodox method of his assassination would have been used to prevent Hamas from claiming a direct attack, which would have forced them to retaliate with rockets from Gaza, leading to an escalation.
But prime suspect does not mean the only suspect. Old accounts and new suspicions are always coming to the surface in Gaza. There are any number of reasons Fuqaha’s “colleagues” could have wanted him dead, as well as rival organisations or those who may have been angry at his possible collaboration with rival organisations. Israel is always a convenient suspect. The fact that it took Hamas over 24 hours after the murder to order closure of the Erez crossing to Israel looks highly suspicious.
The assassination came amid reports of a growing number of Hamas operatives in Gaza crossing the lines and joining the Salafist groups aligned with Daesh.
Meanwhile, Fuqaha’s fellow former prisoner, Yahya Sinwar, is now taking over the role of political leader in Gaza. As Hamas undergoes a tense period of transition at the top, anger is growing over the slow pace of rebuilding and economic stagnation. Whoever ordered and carried out the hit, Hamas is under huge pressure to improve conditions in Gaza and follow up their accusations against Israel with deeds. This suggests that soon there will be an attempted to terror attack in the West Bank or in Israel - but one that will not force Israel to retaliate against Hamas targets in Gaza.
For over a decade since the end of the Second Intifada, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been cooperating to prevent Hamas from reestablishing its military infrastructure in the West Bank.
These efforts have largely been successful and the cells still active there have found it increasingly difficult to carry out anything remotely close to the campaign of terror they waged at the start of the last decade. The commander of the “West Bank Command”, Saleh Arouri, has been further hampered by the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, which forced him to move from Istanbul to Doha in Qatar. With its options shrinking, the fear is that Hamas will resort to desperate attempts to reassert their standing as the leading “resistance” to Israel.