Middle East Report N°104
The dangerous escalation between Israel and Hamas demonstrates once more the need for both a fresh approach toward Gaza and a better understanding of Hamas’s relationship with rival Islamist groups.
Radical Islam in Gaza, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the impact of Salafi-Jihadi groups in Gaza. Adhering to a more militant brand of Sunni Islam than Hamas, these groups pose both a practical and an ideological threat to the movement. As progress toward normalising life, engaging the world or achieving a prisoner exchange stalls, the uncompromising outlook of the Salafi-Jihadis becomes more appealing to militants.
“These groups are comprised mostly of former members of Hamas and other established factions. Many of their recruits are disaffected younger activists who see Hamas as compromising with Israel while getting very little in return”, said Nathan Thrall, Crisis Group’s Middle East Analyst.
Local Salafi-Jihadi groups emerged primarily after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and expanded their activities during the subsequent fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Over time, Hamas’s relationship with them has shifted from cooperation to antagonism: since taking over Gaza, Hamas has limited their freedom of manoeuvre. Clashes with Hamas security forces killed dozens and, in one case, in effect wiped out one of the largest groups.
The influence of Salafi-Jihadis is not preponderant, but nor is it negligible. Although their numbers are few, they are responsible for a significant proportion of rockets fired at Israel. Moreover, they accuse Hamas of laxity in enforcing religious mores, a charge that resonates with many movement supporters and leads the government to greater zeal in applying Islamic law.
“The policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas has only exacerbated the problem”, said Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “As the international community seeks a new way to address political Islam in the wake of the Arab upheaval, Gaza would be a good place to start”.
The recent Israel-Hamas escalation returns a spotlight to Gaza and the Islamist movement’s relationship with more militant organisations. Gaza arouses multiple concerns: does Hamas seeks to impose religious law; has its purported Islamisation stimulated growth of Salafi-Jihadi groups; and will al-Qaeda offshoots find a foothold there? Hamas faces competition from more radical Islamist groups, though their numbers are few, organisation poor, achievements against Israel so far minor and chances of threatening Gaza’s government slight. The significance of Gaza’s Salafi-Jihadis is less military capability than constraints they impose on Hamas: they are an ideological challenge; they appeal to members of its military wing, a powerful constituency; through attacks within and from Gaza, they threaten security; by criticising Hamas for not fighting Israel or implementing Sharia, they exert pressure for more militancy and Islamisation. The policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas exacerbates this problem. As the international community seeks new ways to address political Islam in the Arab upheaval’s wake, Gaza is not the worst place to start.
In the last few years, Hamas has faced new Islamist challengers in Gaza. They are groups of militants, known as Salafi-Jihadis, who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and see themselves not as liberators of Palestine but as part of a global movement of armed fighters defending Muslims against non-Muslim enemies, a category many of them believe also includes Shiites and Palestinian secularists. Although their current strength is low, these groups – which are responsible for a sizeable proportion of Gaza-based rocket attacks toward Israel – could well trigger an escalation that, as illustrated in the past week, could have serious consequences for Gaza, Israel and the region as a whole.
Over time, Hamas’s relationship with such militants has shifted from cooperation to antagonism. One of Gaza’s oldest Salafi-Jihadi groups, Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), participated with Hamas and another faction in the 2006 capture of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. In the years since, Hamas has cracked down on Jaysh al-Islam and similar groups, acting decisively when it met with anything resembling a direct defiance of its governmental authority. In August 2009, when the spiritual leader of Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God’s Supporters), a newer Salafi-Jihadi group based in Rafah, denounced Hamas, declared an Islamic Emirate in Palestine, and demanded the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law), Hamas brutally confronted it, resulting in more than two dozen deaths, 100 injuries and the group’s near total elimination.
Hamas’s policy since then has been one of containment, directed not only at Salafi-Jihadi militants, who are arrested when caught violating the ceasefire it until recently had been upholding, but also at Hamas members who sympathise with these groups. Most Salafi-Jihadis in Gaza are young, low-ranking former members of the military wings of established factions, primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also the Popular Resistance Committees and Fatah. Reasons for their defections vary, but the majority state that primary among their sources of dissatisfaction with Hamas were its participation in the 2006 legislative elections, acquiescence to ceasefires with Israel and failure after taking over Gaza to implement Sharia.
The influence of Salafi-Jihadis is not prominent, but nor is it negligible. They accuse Hamas of laxity in enforcing religious mores, a charge that resonates with many movement supporters and leads the government to greater determination in applying Islamic law. At the same time, the exigencies of governing, hope of increasing diplomatic ties and pressure from many Gazans, human rights activists and Westerners pull in an opposite direction. The result has been a zigzagging policy in which Islamising decisions are announced, at times retracted when citizens object, and on occasion nonetheless enforced. More worrying has been a series of bombings, shootings, burnings and lootings aimed at targets that appear un-Islamic and for which no suspect has been publicly tried. In many cases, it is still unclear who or what was behind them. Some suspect Salafi-Jihadi groups, others Hamas’s more militant members, who were thought difficult to reprimand while the government faced criticism for imposing a ceasefire – now broken – that had neither convinced Israel to lift its closure of Gaza’s borders nor ended the Islamist movement’s diplomatic isolation.
The international community’s policy of snubbing Hamas and isolating Gaza has been misguided from the outset, for reasons Crisis Group long has enumerated. Besides condemning Gazans to a life of scarcity, it has not weakened the Islamist movement, loosened its grip over Gaza, bolstered Fatah or advanced the peace process. To that, one must add the assist provided to Salafi-Jihadis, who benefit from both Gaza’s lack of exposure to the outside world and the apparent futility of Hamas’s strategy of seeking greater engagement with the international community, restraining – until recently – attacks against Israel and limiting Islamising policies advocated by more zealous leaders. There is no guarantee that engaging Hamas politically and normalising the situation in Gaza would lead the Islamist movement to greater pragmatism or diminish the appeal of more radical alternatives. But it is worth the try.
President Mubarak’s ouster likely will be followed by a revision of Egypt’s approach toward Gaza – notably a significant loosening of the border closure and improved relations with Hamas. This would appear to be the natural consequence of the eventual election of a more representative, accountable government that better reflects the views of a citizenry dismayed by the former regime’s policies. Such a shift should be seen as an opportunity for others – Europeans and Americans in particular – to revisit their own assumptions. And to understand that the alternative to Hamas in Gaza is not only or necessarily Fatah. It also is the more radical Islamist groups they have every interest in combating.
Gaza City/Ramallah/Jerusalem/Brussels, 29 March 2011