Kidnapping of Israeli Soldier May Indicate Major Rift Inside Hamas

The abduction of an Israeli soldier has laid bare deep rifts inside Hamas, with militants from the group claiming responsibility and Palestinian government officials insisting they knew nothing of the operation.

Hamas leaders hotly denied a split. But the working assumption of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is that Hamas' exiled leader gave the green light for the raid without consulting the Hamas-led government, two senior Abbas aides told The Associated Press.

In the power struggle between followers of the exiled Khaled Mashaal and more moderate leaders in Gaza, Mashaal's forces have the upper hand because they control the purse strings that keep Hamas afloat, said the aides. They spoke on condition of anonymity because their observations were not official policy.

CountryWatch: Israel

Hamas' military wind, known as the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, and two other groups tied to Hamas — the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam — claimed responsibility for kidnapping Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Shalit, 19, the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 12 years, was seized in Israel early Sunday in a raid that killed two other soldiers and three militants.

The abduction raised the specter of an overwhelming Israeli assault on Gaza, and set off a frenzied diplomatic push to win Shalit's freedom.

Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately from Hamas, spoke with 19 foreign leaders to enlist their help. Most significant, according to the Abbas aides, was his call to President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose country shelters Mashaal and who is believed to have influence over the Hamas leader.

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Beirut who is close to Mashaal, insisted Mashaal had nothing to do with the actions of Hamas' military wing. Hamdan accused Abbas' Fatah Party of trying "to implicate him (Mashaal) in this to provide a pretext for the Israelis to hit him."

"Indeed, we have received threats to liquidate brother Khaled and we take that very seriously," he said.

A Fatah official, speaking on condition anonymity because he said he does not want to exacerbate tensions with Hamas, said Israel does not need a pretext to attack Mashaal, and has already made it clear that all Hamas leaders could be targeted.

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government in Gaza, denied reports of a split inside Hamas, calling them a "big lie."

But he said the government had no prior knowledge of Sunday's raid, and struggled to explain how that could happen in the absence of a rift.

Gaza's desperation, worsened by an international boycott of the Hamas government, has complicated the relationship among Palestinian factions, "so you'll find some contradictions," Hamad said.

Abbas' aides said they were suspicious of the timing of Sunday's attack, coming on the day Fatah and Hamas were set to announce agreement on a document implicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist, possibly paving the way for an easing of Israeli and Western sanctions. The aides said they believed hard-line elements in Hamas wanted to torpedo the agreement.

Tense relations between Abbas and Mashaal took a turn for the worse in April after Mashaal publicly accused Abbas of being a traitor. Since then, Abbas has shunned all contact with the Hamas leader, refusing to take his phone calls.

Abbas' aides said Sunday's assault may have been a show of force by Mashaal to illustrate the dangers of sidelining him. Fatah officials said Ahmad Jaabari, leader of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, is in close contact with Mashaal.

Of the Hamas officials in Gaza and the West Bank, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Deputy Prime Minister Nasser al-Shaer are considered the most moderate. Al-Shaer has called for Shalit's release.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar is considered to be close to Mashaal. At a meeting in Gaza meant to ease tensions between Fatah and Hamas on Saturday, Zahar reportedly chided Fatah politicians for trying to undermine his authority.