The National / October 9, 2023
Field commanders kept details away from leadership in exile to ensure secrecy of operation.
Most of the movement’s political leaders have lived in exile outside the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for years, deepening the divide between them and the group’s military wing known as the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who are spearheading the continuing fighting with Israel.
The political leaders have mostly been living in Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and Egypt.
Speaking to The National, the officials said a handful of Gaza-based Hamas leaders, reportedly as few as three who once served in the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, knew of the attack in advance. As a precaution, they were made to believe that the operation would begin 48 hours after it got under way on Saturday.
The element of surprise was a key part of the military success of the Hamas-led attack on Saturday and questions have been raised about the failure of Israeli military intelligence. A major challenge facing Palestinian groups historically has been infiltration from Israeli operatives or leaks.
“The so-called historical leaders of Hamas who live in exile first learnt of the operation from television news channels and watched it unfold on Al Jazeera just like everyone else,” said one of the officials.
This is a shift in the power dynamics in Hamas, where the military wing is now taking the lead ahead of its political leadership.
Jordanian commentator Hazem Ayad, an expert on Palestinian groups, said that while the exiled political leaders may have been aware of plans to attack Israel, “determining the zero hour was a purely military decision”.
“Their role is mostly external,” he said.
Many of the movement’s leaders left Qatar in the past 48 hours and moved to Iran, Hamas’s main backer, according to Egyptian security officials.
They said former Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Mohammed Nazal arrived in Iran in the past two days. Khaled Meshaal, another top leader, was joined in Iran by Khalil al-Haya and Ezzat al-Rashq, according to the officials.
The officials said their arrival in Iran was not to take up permanent residence there, but possibly for meetings related to the fighting between Hamas and Israel.
Their move may have been inspired in part by Israel’s track record of assassinating Hamas leaders at times of conflict.
“Any Israeli attempt to assassinate the political figures at this stage would show weakness because its main problem is finding an effective response against the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades,” said Ayad.
Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed since the fighting began. Scores of Israelis were also taken hostage by the militants. It is the deadliest conflict for Israel since Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack against Israel in 1973.
Egypt, which borders both Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, has been trying to mediate an end to the fighting but appears to have made little headway so far. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry have held talks with world leaders since the fighting began in a bid to create international momentum.
Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, had in the past mediated truces between Hamas and Israel, the last of which was in 2021. But Cairo’s efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions as a prelude to reviving the long-stagnant peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have so far failed to bear fruit.
The officials said senior commanders from Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades and Sarayah al-Quds, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, were not immediately responsive to Cairo’s efforts to end the fighting. Israel, for its part, was adamant it would not enter truce negotiations before it had severely punished Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the incursion.
Known for their secrecy and distrust of outsiders, both Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades and Sarayah al-Quds are currently refusing to share with the Egyptians the exact number of hostages they are holding.
Israeli requests for Israeli women and children to be released, passed on to the two groups by Egyptian officials, have also been ignored, said the officials.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad are determined to continue fighting for now,” said one of the officials. “They are euphoric about what they have achieved and believe pressing on will bring results.”
Hamza Hendawi for The National in Cairo
Khaled Yacoub Oweis contributed to this report from Amman