Who will guard the Gaza guards?

December 6, 2017
Sarah Benton

Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas patrol the border with Egypt, in Rafah, Gaza, Oct. 8, 2017. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters

The uncertain future of Palestine’s security force

Egypt stands ready to unify Palestinian security forces through an organizational overhaul and training, but Hamas may not accept the offer.

By Adnan Abu Amer, Al Monitor
December 01, 2017

Despite the signing of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement in Cairo on Oct. 12 and further reconciliation talks in Cairo on Nov. 21 and 23, security appears to remain the most challenging and complex issue.

Ahmad Halas, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and general commissioner for mobilization in Gaza, had announced on Nov. 6 that Egypt will have a role in training the Palestinian security forces and is willing to oversee the reorganization of the entire security structure of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Hamas political bureau member Khalil al-Hayya told Al-Monitor,

“Hamas welcomes any Egyptian role in the delicate security issue as part of a Palestinian-Egyptian agreement on the future of the security structure. During the latest round of talks in Cairo, Hamas and Fatah agreed to merge 3,000 new security officers with the current ones serving in Gaza and to form a joint security committee comprised of eight experts to restructure the security establishment in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, under Egyptian auspices and Arab supervision.”

Egyptian officials were quoted on Nov. 6 as saying that Cairo will arrange programmes for Palestinian security forces in military and police training camps in Egypt. This includes restructuring and rehabilitating the different branches of the security forces, controlling the Palestinian side of the border with the Sinai Peninsula, eliminating armed groups in Gaza that cooperate with Wilayat Sinai militants and unifying Palestinian security institutions in Gaza and the West Bank under the same leadership and devoid of political and ideological issues that could negatively affect performance.

Al-Monitor has learned from Palestinian sources who participated in the Nov. 21 and 23 Cairo talks that Egyptian security officials will soon be visiting Gaza to discuss implementation of PA security control over the territory.

Wasef Erekat, a West Bank military analyst and former commander of artillery forces for the PLO, told Al-Monitor,

“Egypt will provide training programmes to Palestinian security forces, like the police and civil defence. Yet it will not teach them military skills that could threaten Israel. The idea behind training Palestinian security forces is to transfer the security experience of the West Bank security forces to their counterparts in the Gaza Strip while fully coordinating with Israel. Hamas in its turn cannot ignore Egypt’s security training even though this training is based on the principle of ending resistance operations.”

The security doctrine adopted for the security forces might indeed emerge as a major topic of contention between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas holds that one of the most important tasks of the security forces is to protect the armed resistance and pursue collaborators working with Israel. Meanwhile, Fatah continues to support security co-operation with Israel. In August, President Mahmoud Abbas said he had issued clear instructions for security forces to prevent the planning of armed operations in the Palestinian territories that target Israel. He also said that security coordination with Israel had not been affected by the political stalemate, adding that PA relations with the Israeli security apparatus were better that those with the Israeli political establishment.

In an Oct. 10 press statement, an unidentified Egyptian official revealed some of the details surrounding security arrangements in Gaza, including that a joint committee of Egyptian, Fatah and Hamas representatives would manage overall security. Egypt would assign tasks and provide military supervision. The committee is also expected to include a permanent representative from Egyptian intelligence to follow up and supervise committee operations.

Iyad al-Bazm, spokesperson for the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Interior and National Security in Gaza, told Al-Monitor,

“We do not have the details on the Egyptian training for Palestinian security forces. Although we welcome any Egyptian effort in this regard, it should be preceded by merging military and security employees, uniting the security institution and restructuring security bodies through reconciliation talks. Such a process would take a long time and would not be completed before February 2018, as per the agreement reached in October.”

A Palestinian security official in the West Bank told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity,

“Egyptian training for our security forces aims at guaranteeing stability across the Palestinian territories because it trains soldiers and officers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on following a unified security doctrine set by the PA’s political programme, without succumbing to affiliations to political parties and Palestinian factions. The security situation that has governed the Gaza Strip over the past 10 years was divisive and needs to end once and for all.”

He further remarked, “Egypt also seeks to equip these forces and provide them with wireless devices, vehicles and light weapons in co-operation with donor countries. [The training] might require the recruitment of security, technical and administrative personnel from Western countries who would help in preparing and equipping the security forces.”

Egypt is especially concerned about the fragile security situation in Gaza in light of ongoing unrest in Sinai. The problem was highlighted by the horrific, Nov. 24 attack on the Rawda Mosque in Sinai that left more than 300 dead. No group has thus far claimed responsibility. All the Palestinian factions condemned the killing the day it took place and proclaimed their solidarity with Egypt. In May, Egypt had accused Hamas of sheltering Wilayat Sinai fugitives and others wanted by Egyptian authorities, which is why Cairo might prioritize securing the border with Gaza in the upcoming training of Palestinian security forces.

Hussam al-Dajani, professor of political science at Al-Ummah University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor,

“Egypt seeks to train Palestinian security forces to restore the situation that prevailed before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The training will focus on cementing soldiers’ and officers’ loyalty and obedience to their Palestinian political leaders, represented by the PA. The training will also focus on adopting the same security doctrine that aims at reconstructing collective Palestinian consciousness so that all soldiers from an early age pledge allegiance to President Mahmoud Abbas and his policies.”

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

He works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centres and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

Palestinian Salafists shout slogans during a rally in protest at what they say are recent massacres committed against the Syrian people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 22, 2013. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters

How Salafism’s Rise Threatens Gaza

By Colin P. Clarke, The Rand blog
October 11, 2017

The once-feuding Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may be moving closer to reconciliation in Gaza, but Salafi jihadist groups launching audacious attacks could spoil any rapprochement, potentially dragging the Palestinians back into another conflict in the process. In August, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest in the Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt, killing a member of Hamas’ security team and wounding several others.

Far from being an isolated incident, this attack represents the emergence of yet another violent militant faction in Gaza—a densely populated strip of land wedged between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which crams 1.8 million people into an area slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. This major shift toward an even more radical and violent milieu is mainly due to a growing Salafi movement in Gaza, a new phenomenon that threatens the temporary equilibrium of what is usually a turbulent area within the Middle East.

The suicide attacker is widely suspected of being a member of a Palestinian Salafi group with links to the Islamic State (or ISIS). The rise of hardline Salafism—a branch of Islam that embraces a literalist interpretation of the Koran and advocates the restoration of a so-called global caliphate—is a worrisome trend in Gaza. Hamas, whose ideology is a blend of Palestinian nationalism and hardline Islamist politics, is being outflanked by more violent, extremist terrorist organizations determined to destroy Israel and wage war on Palestinian groups it has deemed too moderate.

A Strengthened Ideology

Salafism historically took root in Gaza in the 1970s, when Palestinian students returned  from studying abroad at religious schools in Saudi Arabia. A number of Salafi groups in Gaza continue to receive support and funding from Riyadh today, according to journalist Jared Maslin. The four principal active groups are Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God’s Supporters), Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jaysh Al-Umma (Army of the Nation), and al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad).

Palestinian Salafists shout during a protest outside the French Cultural Centre in Gaza City, Jan. 19, 2015. Photo by Suhaib Salem/ Reuters

Although these groups have not traditionally been a major force in Palestinian politics, this has changed in the past several years. Salafists first gained traction in the power vacuum that resulted from the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah in the summer of 2007. In 2009, Salafi leader Abdel-Latif Musa, leader of Jund Ansar Allah, even proclaimed an “Islamic Emirate” in the southern city of Rafah before he was killed in a raid by Hamas.

ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate helped rejuvenate Salafi ideology

The success of the Islamic State (ISIS), itself a hardline Salafi group, further strengthened Gaza’s Salafists. Media statements released by Gaza-based Salafi groups, for example, have included songs and imagery originally produced by ISIS’ propaganda wing. More broadly, ISIS’ declaration of caliphate, an official announcement of the group’s intention to govern a state ruled by strict Islamic law, helped rejuvenate Salafi ideology. The organization’s global appeal was and is evident in its ability to recruit tens of thousands of foreign fighters and cultivate tens of thousands of supporters online who promote its propaganda and spread its message. It doesn’t matter that the caliphate has been destroyed over the past six months and ISIS is in shambles. The group’s temporary success was proof to its supporters that forming a caliphate governed according to strict Islamic principles is not only possible, but a divine duty.

Outflanking Hamas

With ISIS’ example in mind and that group’s success in taking over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the active Salafi groups in Gaza have gone to great lengths to position themselves as the most radical organizations within the occupied territories. These groups consider Hamas members infidels for their willingness to participate in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Salafi groups are inherently opposed to elections, since they believe that only God’s law matters and that sharia is the only acceptable governing platform.

In their attempts to claim the moral high ground vis-à-vis Hamas, these groups have gone so far as to deploy members to shutter video stores, Internet cafes, and other establishments they deem “un-Islamic.”

Gaza’s Salafi have also criticized Hamas for agreeing to a cease-fire with Israel on several occasions, the most recent of which was in mid-2015, claiming that the once-feared Palestinian terrorist group known for its use of suicide bombings is now guilty of collaborating with the Zionist enemy. A group known as the Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades referred to Hamas as “perverted” and “crooked” and added that it “will not stop targeting the figures” of Hamas and “breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations.”

To sabotage the cease-fire, ISIS supporters in Gaza have sporadically fired rockets over the border into Israel in a display of insubordination. In response, Hamas has waged a campaign against the Salafists, rounding up scores of them and imprisoning them without trial or due process. The tensions have even escalated into firefights between Hamas and the Salafists, the latter of whom has repeatedly threatened to fire rockets into Israel over the past several years in outright defiance of Hamas.

In effect, these Salafi groups are challenging Hamas’ claim to being the most truly Islamic group among the various Palestinian organizations. In doing so, they possess the ability to push Hamas toward a more hardline stance. Hamas has already lost some of its more radical members, including many from its military wing, to these groups, which advocate a more militaristic stance toward Israel.

The View From Israel

Israel is even more worried than Hamas about the rise of Gaza’s Salafi jihadists. The Jewish state is used to existing in a region where it is constantly under siege by its neighbors, but the danger posed by transnational jihadists is especially severe. Although Israel has been relatively immune from al Qaeda attacks, the presence of an organized and highly capable ISIS affiliate based in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, just across the border from Gaza, has presented Tel Aviv with yet another security challenge. These insurgents regularly clash with Egyptian security forces and were responsible for the attack on Metrojet Flight 9268, which was brought down two years ago by an ISIS bomb that killed all 224 people on board. That same month, an ISIS video released in Hebrew warned that “not a single Jew will remain in Jerusalem.” Although some might dismiss this threat as mere bluster, Israel takes these warnings seriously.

For its part, Israel does not recognize the difference between attacks launched by Salafists and those conducted by Hamas. Israel regards Hamas—the de facto recognized government of Gaza—as responsible for any and all attacks emanating from Gazan soil.
This means that attacks by Salafists could—and indeed have—resulted in Israeli reprisals targeting Hamas infrastructure and property. Punishing Hamas for the misdeeds of the Salafists seems wrongheaded, as it could easily torpedo what has been a relatively calm period during the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which has held steady for most part since the end of Operation Protective Edge in late August 2014.

Reducing the threat posed by Gaza’s Salafists will necessarily entail limiting the potential pool of recruits. The current generation of Gaza’s youth has come of age during three successive wars with Israel; unemployment is rampant and hope is in short supply.

These young Palestinians have been labelled “the Hamas generation.” But if the economic situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate—resulting in part from an economic blockade enforced by Egypt—the young Palestinians may eventually become known as “the Salafi generation.”

Just as Hamas began to eclipse Fatah in the late 1980s as the most radical and violent Palestinian organization, Gaza’s Salafists could surpass Hamas as the most dangerous threat to other Palestinians and the state of Israel. Such a result would be likely to be disastrous, since it could very well signal the sabotage of yet another chance for progress in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism in The Hague.

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on October 11, 2017.

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