Concern over ISIS in Gaza
GAZA CITY - Once dusk falls in Gaza, Hamas security forces man roadblocks on main intersections leading to vital public institutions, stopping and searching vehicles, and checking passengers.
The checkpoints are part of an intensive security campaign that began in April that media reports said was to hunt down extreme Islamist Salafists suspected of links to Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
The tightened security came as a wave of often daily explosions ripped through Gaza for five weeks, targeting various areas but causing no casualties. Media reports suggested that Salafists were behind the attacks and said many adherents of the strict school of Islam were rounded up on suspicion that they had links to, or were communicating with, ISIS activists.
But Hamas Interior Ministry officials said ISIS had no active members in the densely populated coastal strip.
“There’s no ISIS in Gaza,” Iyad Bozzom, a spokesman of the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, told The Arab Weekly. He described ISIS as a group with “fanatical beliefs that violate human culture and the principles of all religions”.
Bozzom denied there was a clampdown on Salafis and dismissed the media reports as “unfounded”, but he acknowledged some individuals had been detained for questioning.
“Our security apparatus didn’t crackdown on anyone. What happened was that some individuals were arrested because they refused to appear before the security services to clarify some issues, but were released later,” he said.
Asked about the unusual roadblocks and the explosions, Bozzom said, “The security forces are investigating the bombings and have arrested some suspects.”
He declined to provide details but insisted that the roadblocks aim at “maintaining security and stability for our people”.
“Our aim is to calm down the population after these bombings and after trading rumours that these groups intend to carry out more bombings if their prisoners were not released,” Bozzom said.
The measures, however, underline that Hamas, which violently seized control of Gaza from secular Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, will not tolerate any challenge to its authority in the strip.
Gaza’s Palestinians are still living with the effects of last year’s war with Israel. Hamas fired missiles at Israeli cities in confrontations that lasted 51 days and Israel responded with air strikes that damaged infrastructure and flattened homes, leaving many Gazans displaced.
Gaza’s fragile economy also suffered, on top of the eight years of Israeli siege that has pushed unemployment and poverty rates to unprecedented highs.
Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a hardline Islamist group that rejects peace with Israel and advocates armed struggle against Israeli occupation. The group has rarely carried out crimes as gruesome as those committed by ISIS, which has beheaded hundreds of civilians. ISIS’s victims include Sunni Muslims who follow the same sect but reject its militant dogma.
In August 2008, Hamas’ security forces cracked down on the radical Salafi group in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing eight people, including Sheikh Abdu Latif Musa al-Maqdisi, after the cleric declared the establishment of an Islamic State in his town.
In April, Hamas clamped down again on Salafis and rounded up the banned group’s leaders and activists.
Afterwards, explosions started to go off almost every day across Gaza.
Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji told The Arab Weekly that checkpoints had been set up in the hunt for drug dealers and other outlaws. Another reason, he said, was to deter law-breaking, public order disturbances and threats to security and stability.
He denied the bolstered police presence was targeting radical groups. “There is no presence for ISIS as an organisation in Gaza but there are some individuals who contact external sides through the internet,” he said.
Khaled Safi, a Gaza-based expert on Islamic groups, said there was little support for ISIS among Gazans.
“As people here yearn for an end to internal divisions between Hamas and Fatah, they prefer Hamas over a radical and violent ISIS in Gaza that will add more to their tragedies and suffering,” Safi said.
Originally, Gaza Salafists were among the most radical elements within Hamas who split from the party after it won elections in 2006. Many Gaza Salafis have joined ISIS and some have been killed in Syria and Iraq.
“Both Hamas and ISIS are Sunni Muslims and both agree on one goal: to establish the Islamic caliphate,” Safi said. But he insisted Hamas neither condones violence against its own people, nor does it seek to impose its doctrine by force.
Khalil al-Hayya, a top Hamas politician in Gaza, told The Arab Weekly that Hamas is carefully monitoring ISIS. “Hamas still controls the Gaza Strip and its radar is following such radical thought and immediately dealing with it,” he said.