AFP reported last week on recent attacks in Gaza by groups claiming allegiance to the “Islamic State”, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The fanatical group has been bombing Hamas targets. Hamas officials have downplayed reports of any ISIS presence in Gaza.
This war between ISIS and Hamas puts the lie to recent Israeli propaganda, made to appeal to its European and American allies, that “Hamas, ISIS and al-Qaeda” are all essentially one and the same – enemies of “the West”.
Like most Israeli propaganda, this is utter nonsense.
Hamas defines itself as a Palestinian national liberation movement with Islamic characteristics. Its armed and political struggle has only ever targeted Israel, the settler-colonial entity that occupies Palestine and enforces a rigorous system of injustice and inequality there.
ISIS (which began as a branch of al-Qaeda before going off on its own tangent) by way of contrast envisions an “Islamic” supra-state which would stretch over the whole Levant, or Greater Syria region, as well as Iraq.
Al-Qaeda, despite the historic rhetoric from Osama bin Laden about the plight of the Palestinians, has long condemned Hamas as apostate movement for its nationalism, and for participation in democratic elections. ISIS seems to be following along the same path, and is now stretching these rhetorical attacks into armed attacks,
Since 2007, Hamas, elected to power in 2006, has had a firm grip on the coastal strip in terms of security. It has met and bested several security challenges over the years from different sources.
The first major security challenge of this era was from elements of the Fatah movement close to Mohammad Dahlan – a CIA contact, and the man best understood as the leader of the Palestinian Contras (a phrase coined by Ali Abunimah).
Dahlan, who was the Palestinian Authority’s corrupt and brutal warlord in the Gaza Strip for many years, attempted a coup against the newly elected leaders of the PA – Hamas. But forces loyal to Hamas nipped this conspiracy in the bud and ejected the Palestinian Contras (who had been armed in coordination with the US, Israel, Jordan and Egypt) from the Gaza Strip.
Later, small hard-line Salafist jihadi type factions began to challenge Hamas. There was the kidnapping of the BBC journalist Alan Johnson in 2007 by a group calling itself the “Army of Islam”. Led by the Doughmoush clan, it is thought that this group likely had ties to Dahlan, and was used to destabilise the Gaza Strip under Hamas governance.
In 2009, a small armed cult led by Abdul-Latif Moussa briefly established what it called an “Islamic emirate” in a Gaza mosque. The preacher was killed along with others during the ensuing battle with Hamas forces. Some reports in Western media described the group, Jund Ansar Allah, as “al-Qaeda inspired”.
Hamas officials at the time downplayed or denied reports of any al-Qaeda presence in the strip. As mentioned, they are doing similar now when it comes to ISIS. This is understandable, considering that the modus operandi of both ISIS and al-Qaeda type groups is to spread their horrific doctrine via spectacular violence and via online and media propaganda. No armed such armed groups can operate openly in Gaza. A video titled “IS supporters in Gaza issue 72-hour ultimatum to Hamas” hosted on the Israeli news sitei24News shows a small group of armed men issuing violent threats to camera. They are masked, their eyes are blurred out and the audio of their voices is distorted for purposes of disguise.
While there have been occasional reports of individuals from Gaza going to Syria to fight with one faction or another (having to dodge Hamas security forces in the process), the overall Hamas position that there is no significant organised presence for such groups in Gaza seems to be correct.
These violent actions of minor cells or small groups of individuals sympathetic to ISIS in Gaza inevitably lead to certain questions about who is backing or funding them. If such attacks remain small scale and limited, it’s quite possible that they are simply disgruntled individuals who have defected from Palestinian resistance factions while taking their weapons with them.
But the more frequent such actions become, the more speculation rises of outside funding, interference and subversion. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine Israel funding and backing such groups in order to destabilise Gaza and bleed its deadly enemy Hamas. After all, as I have covered in some detail in this column, we know by now that Israel is actively in alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, in the Golan Heights.
I have long argued here that the thinking of one former Israeli official in regards to Syria reflects actual Israeli policy on the ground in Syria: “Let them both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this [war] lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”
And now, writing in a column earlier this month, veteran security correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranot has confirmed that “‘Let them bleed’ … [is] the official policy Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has dictated to the security establishment in light of the events in Syria”.
It’s most likely that Israel would like to extend this policy to Gaza.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.