MAGHAZI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- From the time he was a boy, Ali al-Manama dreamed of joining the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Hamas movement. His commitment intensified when his father, a Qassam fighter, was killed by an Israeli drone in 2001 as he fired mortar shells over the border. Ali joined up at 15, relatives said, and by 23 had risen to be a commander in this neighborhood in the midsection of this coastal Palestinian territory.
On Friday, at the funeral of a fellow fighter, Mr. Manama leaned over the body and said, "I'll join you soon, God willing," recalled a cousin who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Mahmoud.
His wish to die fighting and become a martyr -- and the honor it would bring in his community -- was fulfilled Saturday morning at 7:30, though the missile struck him not while he was in active combat but talking on a cell phone that Israeli intelligence may have used to track his whereabouts.
"He had been telling us all week about all the achievements of Qassam," Mahmoud said. "When he heard about the rockets in Israel, he would be very proud."
Mr. Manama was one of as many as 15,000 Qassam fighters who are responsible for most of the rocket blitzes that have blanketed southern Israel and reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the five days since the brigade's operations commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated, experts say.
Highly organized and increasingly professionalized yet still secretive and cultlike, Qassam is emblematic of Hamas' struggle to balance its history as a resistance movement and its governing role in Gaza since 2007.
Israel has blamed the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza on the fact that Qassam and Hamas are inextricable, and military storehouses are woven into residential neighborhoods. Most Qassam fighters have day jobs -- as police officers, university professors, ministry clerks, and Mr. Manama's relatives said he had been sleeping at home even during last week's widening war.
Jabari in recent years had both increased the military branch's political power and become a popular hero whose visage adorned posters and billboards throughout the Gaza Strip.
With an expanding arsenal and financing provided by Iran, Syria, Sudan and other foreign sources, Qassam expanded and matured under Jabari, adopting clear training regimens and chains of command. Last year, he even negotiated with Israel to return an Israeli sergeant, Gilad Shalit -- whose kidnapping he had engineered five years earlier -- in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Yet Qassam remains a fundamentalist jihadi enterprise whose culture and goals -- terrorizing and obliterating Israel -- resemble those of ragtag militia cells.
"The point of departure shouldn't be that we have a state and within a state we have institutions and within the institutions you have a division of labor," cautioned Shaul Mishal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University who wrote a book on Hamas. "Hamas maybe dreams about being a state, and Qassam, sometimes they delude themselves that they are an army, but at the end I think their basic perception is that they're part and parcel of a community. It's blurred boundaries between the political activities and the military operations."world