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February 22, 2016 7:41 am

Hamas Dances With the Devil: ISIS in Gaza

avatar by Paul Alster

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Fighters of the Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Photo: Wikipedia.

Fighters of the Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Gaza-based Hamas terror organization has more than its fair share of problems at the moment. Quite likely against its better judgment, it is becoming increasingly reliant on a controversial and dangerous relationship with Sinai Province, the vicious ISIS affiliate in Sinai.

Most of Hamas’ problems are related to cash flow. Funds from sympathetic donor states such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are sporadic and insufficient, while relations with another benefactor, Iran, have come under great strain due to Hamas’ support for Syrian rebel factions opposing the Assad regime that fights alongside Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The wages of public sector workers often go unpaid for months at a time, and according to a 2015 World Bank report, Gaza’s unemployment rate is the highest in the world at 43 percent.

Add into this mix the failure of Arab nations to deliver on pledges to rebuild parts of Gaza damaged during the 2014 summer war with Israel, and Egypt’s refusal — apart from a brief respite earlier this week — to open the crucial Rafah crossing, and things look bleak for Hamas. The only goods legally entering Gaza are the many hundreds of truckloads arriving daily from Israel via the Kerem Shalom crossing.

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Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down severely on the Sinai smuggling tunnels in and out of Gaza that flourished during the time of his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor Mohammed Morsi.

In search of a friend, or at least a partner with whom it can have a mutually beneficial relationship, Hamas cut a deal with Sinai Province despite having cracked down violently on ISIS supporters in Gaza in order to keep a grip on power in the overcrowded coastal enclave. This collaboration risks legitimizing the ISIS affiliate in Hamas’ own backyard, undermining its brutal dominance in Gaza, and providing the jihadists’ supporters with an argument that it is Sinai Province and not Hamas that is keeping the show on the road.

Formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Sinai Province was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. That changed in late-2014 when the Bedouin terror group switched allegiance to Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Its extreme, ultra-violent ideology has long been viewed even by Hamas as fanatical, so getting into bed with such an organization clearly carries inherent risks.

Sinai Province is believed to have been behind last October’s bombing of a Russian airliner from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a shocking mass murder that dealt a huge blow to Egypt’s already ailing tourist industry.

“This [partnership] is not so much because of a shared vision or shared ideology but because, at this point in time, anybody is doing business with anybody within Sinai,” regional terror expert Benedetta Berti said earlier this month in an interview with the British Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM). “This creates a clash between what Hamas wants for Gaza, which is not a proliferation of pro-ISIS cells, and some of the deals part of the group is doing in Sinai.”

“Salafist groups are not a challenge in the sense that they are going to overthrow Hamas, but they are definitely a political challenge,” Berti added, “especially if we look at public opinion polls – we see that more and more people are losing faith in the Hamas government.”

Senior Israel military officials claim that injured Sinai Province fighters continue to be ferried through the tunnels into Gaza for medical treatment. They believe this has been ongoing since last summer. Hamas denies treating the jihadis, but is believed to have paid Sinai Province to help keep supply lines open for weapons, including help in clandestinely transferring the lethal Russian-made Kornet anti-tank guided missiles into Gaza. In return, Sinai Province gets to keep a share of the weaponry.

It also has been an open secret for some time that Abdullah Kishta, the notorious Gaza-based weapons expert, is helping train Sinai Province to use the Kornet and other weapons such as MANPAD surface-to-air-missile systems in attacks against Egyptian forces.

Kishta’s training has paid rich dividends with a devastating series of large-scale assaults by Sinai Province on Egyptian forces, including major attacks that have inflicted heavy losses. The group has an estimated 500 to 1,000 members, well trained and well organized local Bedouins. There is no evidence thus far of foreign fighters joining their cause, unlike in ISIS conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.

Israel watches closely from the other side of the border. Privately, many Israeli officials acknowledge that with Palestinian rivals Fatah unlikely to assert any real pressure on Hamas in Gaza, they prefer that Hamas stays in power. The alternative — any one of a number of ISIS-affiliated or other Salafist groups — could prove far more problematic for the Jewish state.

“For Israel, the desire to avoid escalation prevents it from confronting Hamas’s [weapons] buildup openly and dictates a policy of imposed passivity, heightened by the difficulty in ensuring that provisions brought to the Gaza Strip, especially construction materials, are not used for military buildup – though it is highly probable that this is precisely the case,” Maj. Gen (ret.) Amos Yadlin, executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), wrote last Wednesday.

Israeli supplies — some humanitarian food aid and some intended for reconstruction — continue to enter Gaza. If they didn’t, and people starved, that could potentially spark an uprising against Hamas, further destabilizing Gaza and opening the door for Hamas’ opponents, including Islamic State, to attempt an uprising.

Israel also is wary that Sinai Province could mount a cross-border attack into its territory, launching missiles toward Eilat, or copying Hamas in attempting to tunnel from Sinai into southern Israel to kidnap or murder Israelis.

Hamas, though, remains under severe pressure. Only time will tell if its marriage of convenience with the Islamic State affiliate is a shrewd move to ensure survival, or a calamitous error of judgment.

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website:www.paulalster.com.

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