Hamas has long had a complicated relationship with Salafi-jihadi groups operating in Gaza. But in the past few weeks, a series of clashes between Hamas and self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) affiliates in the strip, such as Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, have underscored that the complex balance between active armed factions may be growing more precarious and unstable by the day.
Salafi movements are hardly a new phenomenon in Gaza, with non-violent social and political groups—including Hizb al-Tahrir—operating in Gaza since at least the 1980s. Yet in the past decade, the strip has seen the rise of a small number of loosely organized self-proclaimed Salafi-jihadi organizations. These groups first emerged in the period leading up to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, but grew in influence in the midst of the Fatah-Hamas clashes and the subsequent Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. These local jihadi cells maintained ideological (but not operational) links to al-Qaeda and have been active in Gaza since 2007, opposing the Hamas government and its perceived moderation while perpetrating mostly low-scale attacks against internal targets, along with launching rockets at Israel.
Hamas has taken different approaches to Salafi-jihadi groups over time, from turning a blind eye to local Salafi-jihadi activism to actively cracking down on them. To date, the harshest confrontation took place in the summer of 2009, when Abd-al-Latif Musa, leader of Jund Ansar Allah and the imam of the Ibn Taymiyya Mosque in Rafah, defied the Hamas government and announced the creation of the “Islamic Emirate” of Rafah. This led to a violent confrontation between his Salafi supporters and the Hamas government, ending in the death of the group’s leaders and the demise of the organization.
Since then, the relationship between Hamas and Salafi groups has not substantially improved in the years, even though—following the ousting of the Morsi government in the summer of 2013—Hamas reportedly sought to freeze the conflict with the Salafi-jihadi camp by both trying to reach a détente and partially adopting a more lenient posture. The rising economic and political pressure stemming from its rocky relationship with Egypt likely played a role in pushing the group to boost unity within the strip.
Yet since the summer 2014 war with Israel, internal tensions have again been on the rise. Salafi-jihadis’ movements have been more prominently on the map since the rise of the Islamic State project. The Islamic State’s rise, along with its very public divorce from al-Qaeda, led a number of Gaza-based jihadi groups to switch their loyalty from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even though these groups don’t necessarily have strong operational links with IS in Iraq and Syria, and despite the fact the “pro-IS” camp remains small and internally fragmented, Hamas has been closely monitoring the growing public profile of this “Salafi-jihadi” camp.
Hoping to nip this trend in the bud, Hamas’s attitude against these groups in the past few months has become harsher, and the group arrested a cleric allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State at the beginning of April. This was followed by a more aggressive round of arrests and the increased attention of Hamas authorities in Gaza toward self-proclaimed IS sympathizers in the strip. Unsurprisingly, the rounds of arrests triggered a number of unsophisticated reprisals, including against the UNRWA headquarters. Tensions mounted further at the beginning of May, following both Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya’s 72-hour ultimatum to free all the arrested Salafis and Hamas’s destruction of the small mosque of al-Moutahabbin amid its continued campaign of arrests. In response, IS supporters in Gaza launched attacks against Hamas, including a mortar attack against a Qassam Brigades base in southern Gaza, and issued more threats against Hamas and the Qassam Brigades specifically.
For its part, Hamas has strongly downplayed the impact of these attacks and repeatedly denied the presence of IS-affiliated organizations in Gaza, claiming they only exist on the Internet. At this point, Hamas is certainly not threatened militarily by the seeming rise and increasing animosity of these rather loosely organized and mostly unsophisticated IS-affiliated groups. At the same time, the rise of the latest manifestation of the Salafi-jihadi camp is politically worrying for Hamas.
This has created a number of challenges for Hamas, which is already struggling to address severe economic issues in Gaza. The much-hoped-for relief that was supposed to arrive following the announcement of the unity government in spring 2014 has not materialized, and the preexisting economic crisis has been further exacerbated by the damage inflicted on Gaza by the summer 2014 war with Israel and the glacial pace of reconstruction. Hamas has been largely unable to pay for the salaries of its more than 40,000 employees, leading to growing dissatisfaction within Gaza and recurring and ever more extended strikes.
Growing dissatisfaction in Gaza could allow radical groups such as self-proclaimed IS supporters to entice new recruits. If the past is any guide, some of these recruits could actually come from within the ranks of Hamas, as these groups could win over disenfranchised fighters frustrated with the lack of monetary compensation or armed struggle against Israel. Hamas—a group deeply focused on preserving internal unity, cohesion, and morale—would regard any of such defections as incredibly problematic. What is more, the rise of competing armed groups raises the chance of internal strife within Gaza. Finally, in an effort to weaken Hamas and undermine its grip over Gaza, the Salafi-jihadi camp could decide to step up its rocket attacks against Israel, which in turn could lead to its much-desired escalation.
Islamic State affiliates and supporters make up a very small portion of Gaza’s population. But the combination of political paralysis, stalled reconstruction, and ongoing economic issues present a serious threat to Hamas’s level of support and the long-term stability of Gaza.
Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a post-doctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University, a TED 2015 Fellow, and the author of Armed Political Organizations.