Hamas-ISIS hostility opens door to more Gaza violence

Gaza boasts many jihadist Salafists who harbour strong support for ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
January 14, 2018
Members of al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian movement Hamas, attend a rally marking the 30th anniversary of their group, on December 14

Cairo - Hamas downplayed threats by the Islamic State’s (ISIS) branch in Egypt’s Sinai, saying the group is “too weak” to intimidate its members.

The Palestinian group said it was not surprised that a member of ISIS Sinai had called Hamas a “bunch of infidels,” as ISIS is a radical group that frequently denigrates other movements.

“ISIS usually describes all other Islamist movements as mere apos­tates anyway,” said Mahmoud al- Zahar, a member of Hamas’s polit­buro. “This is why the views or the threats of the radical group do not scare us.”

ISIS Sinai released a video pur­porting to show the execution of a Hamas renegade accused of smug­gling arms and supplies from Sinai to the Gaza-ruling group. Another Hamas defector was shown shoot­ing the man in the head. ISIS threat­ened to kill all Hamas members, describing the Palestinian group as “irreligious.”

Animosity between Hamas and ISIS flared up last May when the Palestinian faction, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, issued a policy document ending its association with the Muslim Brotherhood and that it was ready to support a Pales­tinian state on 1967 borders.

Relations between the two groups worsened when Hamas tried to mend fences with its Pal­estinian rival, Fatah, which rules the occupied West Bank, and said it would cooperate with Egypt in securing Gaza’s border with Sinai, where ISIS is militarily active.

“Even before Hamas issued its new policy document and took measures to start its fledgling rec­onciliation with Hamas and Egypt, ISIS viewed Hamas as a hypocritical movement that adopts an Islamic discourse but little enforces Islamic law as a system of rule in Gaza,” said Sameh Eid, an Egyptian expert in Islamist movements.

“Despite claims by Hamas to the contrary, the outbreak of animosi­ties between Hamas and ISIS will have a direct effect on the security situation in the Gaza Strip.”

Gaza boasts many jihadist Salafists who harbour strong sup­port for ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In 2006, Hamas struck a discord­ant note with Gaza’s Salafists when it participated in the Palestinian legislative elections but that was a time when the Salafists kept a low profile in Gaza and had little sup­port.

Hamas’s subsequent control of Gaza brought it into a confrontation with many Islamist movements, including Salafists, active in the coastal Palestinian enclave.

The Israeli blockade on Gaza and Hamas’s failure to improve condi­tions there caused the movement’s popularity to decline. At the same time, jihadist Salafists gained popu­larity because of their commitment to resisting the Israeli occupation.

In 2014, Gaza’s jihadist Salafists warmly welcomed the emergence of Baghdadi’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

When ISIS sprouted up in Sinai in late 2014, some Gazan Salafists sneaked into Sinai to join the radi­cal organisation and fight the Egyp­tian Army.

Hamas, which harboured hos­tility to the Egyptian Army over its backing of the uprising against Muhammad Morsi of the Mus­lim Brotherhood, an ideological offshoot of Hamas, ignored the Salafists’ presence in Sinai and the activities of some ISIS members in Gaza.

In July 2015, the Army of Islam, one of the oldest jihadist Salafist movements in Gaza, released a video in which it described Baghdadi as the “caliph” of Mus­lims. The group also considered Hamas an “infidel group.”

In April 2015, a group calling it­self Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem popped up in Gaza. It swore allegiance to ISIS and later attacked foreign institutions inside Gaza.

This is likely why a flare-up be­tween Hamas and ISIS Sinai could reverberate inside Gaza and influ­ence security inside the Palestinian territory, experts said.

“These hostilities will increase even more as Hamas moves ahead with its reconciliation with Fatah and cooperates with Egypt in secur­ing the border with Sinai,” Eid said.

Apart from tightening security on the border with Sinai, where ISIS has been fighting the Egyptian Army for almost three years, Hamas gives Egyptian authorities informa­tion on defectors who join ISIS Si­nai and also provides information about the whereabouts of militants in Egyptian territory.

Where exactly the showdown between Hamas and ISIS will reach and how it will affect the situation in Gaza is unclear. However, an event last August could provide an indication of what Gaza will face in the days ahead as Hamas and ISIS collide.

On that day, an ISIS supporter set off a bomb near Hamas troops guarding the border with Egypt. The attack left a Hamas soldier dead and five others injured.

Salah al-Bardawil, another mem­ber of the Hamas politburo, accused ISIS of being an Israel protege that only tarnishes the image of Hamas as a resistance movement.

“They want to smear the Pal­estinian resistance as a whole,” Bardawil said, “but Hamas will not be scared and will continue to stick to its principles, knowing that it has support from all Palestinians.”