On Friday night, Mazen Fuqaha, a senior leader of Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades—and a former prisoner of Israel freed in the 2011 Shalit exchange, a husband, and a father of two young children who also earned a degree in business administration—was gunned down in the Tell al-Hama neighborhood. Gaza’s ministry of interior said in a statement the weapon was a pistol with a silencer, a sure sign of a professional hit and a first in Gaza since Israeli forces withdrew from the Strip, according to the Washington Post.
To us Gazans, assaults and murders have become part of our lives. In between the wars waged by Israel every two to three years, there are scattered attacks, which never give us time to take a calming breath. We live in fear and anxiety. When one war ends, we begin to anticipate the next, which we see advancing now in the wake of Fuqaha’s killing. In 2012, for example, what has come to be known as the eight-day war, was preceded by the Israeli assassination of the second in command of the al-Qassam Brigade, Ahmed Jabari.
When Fuqaha’s body was found with four bullets in his head, rumors immediately spread that Palestinians who had collaborated with Israeli intelligence agents were responsible. And indeed, a few hours later, two press releases were issued, one by Hamas and one by al-Qassam, which claimed Israel was responsible for the crime. Although no tangible proof of Israel’s involvement has been reported, the most obvious “winner” of this killing is Israel.
(Although there are members of ISIS and other extremist groups in Gaza who would also have an interest in killing Fuqaha, although they typically announce their involvement after a crime is committed, and in the past have not targeted a senior official in an armed group.)
Israel has not claimed credit for the murder. Maybe the Israeli government wants to provoke a new war without losing the international community’s sympathy?
Al-Qassam is banned in the West Bank by the ruling Palestinian Authority, but active in Gaza. Ex-prisoners released in the Shalit deal in 2011 and deported to the Gaza Strip have entered leadership positions in recent years, including the selection of Yahya Sinwar as Hamas’ political leader. Prior to taking this position in mid-February, Sinwar was a senior official in al-Qassam.
Fuqaha fits that pattern. He was a senior Hamas official in the occupied West Bank until he was imprisoned by Israel in 2002 then released in the Shalit exchange. At that time he was deported to Gaza, along with 38 others who were originally from the West Bank.
Adding to this, the Israeli army bombed several military sites in Gaza in the last two months, while Palestinians in Gaza generally believed to be with Salafi groups fired three rockets at Israel. During this time in February the spokesperson for al-Qassam, Abu Obeida said: “resistance will be returned in the coming days, I promise.”
Rumors that another war will follow spread quickly on Facebook among Gazans who at this point have been taught to expect it to come at any time.
However, the prevailing opinion is that Hamas is unlikely to respond and risk another war. The last war resulted in more than 2,300 Palestinian deaths, 11,000 injuries and a half million people displaced during the fighting. Even today, almost three years later, thousands of Palestinians still are without homes. As of April 2016, UNRWA estimated nearly 75,000 are still displaced from the war.
For example, the Gaza-based Palestine Now newspaper reported journalist and analyst Mustafa al-Sawaf who has ties to Hamas, said it is unlikely Hamas will allow itself to be dragged so soon into another war with Israel, as many have yet to recover from the last war. Hamas has a depleted military reserve, which leads al-Sawaf to believe each side will now accumulate weapons or trade threats in a sort of Cold War-style buildup.
Average Gazans hope for a rest. The last thing people want to hear is that a new war is about to start, cold or otherwise. “The sound of bombings from the last war still echoes in my ears. When I hear a loud sound, like when a door is slammed, I am startled in fear,” Ahmed J. said, who asked to not be identified by his full name along with others I interviewed.
Basema, 58, Ahmed’s mother, said she believes Hamas will not start a new war, not now. “Hamas knows how destructive the next war will be. Everyone knows the next war is going to bring a calamity on us. Each war brings more destruction to Gaza. God only knows what will happen during the next war.”
One of Basema’s sons was killed during the 2014 war.
On the other hand, Hesham M, a waiter at a café in downtown Gaza City, said he thinks Hamas will respond against Israel over Fuqaha’s killing. “Hamas is a strong party, and it will never accept such an offense without a firm response on the ground.”
There are clues coming from Hamas that war is on the rise. One rank and file member who was injured in the last war said: “Al-Qassam’s response will not be vague.” And, in fact, two months earlier, Hamas leader Mahmoud Alzahar stated that Hamas is more than ready to start a new war if necessary.
Salwa, a law student at Al-Azhar University said she fears war is indeed at Gaza’s door, adding, “I wish I will die before it starts. During war, I psychologically die many times a day.”
After 11 years of blockade, other people have simply become numb. “If a war erupts or it doesn’t, that feels the same,” said Ali. “I graduated from university eight years ago with a master’s in accounting, and I still don’t have a job. I can’t earn a living. I depend on family.”
Another youth named Murad said Israel committed this latest killing to send a message that Hamas is not capable of protecting its people, thus inspiring a revolt. But, as his friend Yasser commented, no nation in the world can assure its people’s safety when it is blockaded by a country that has international backing.
We will always be unsafe until Israel is held to account.
An earlier version of this op-ed was published by We Are Not Numbers.