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February 17, 2017 2:59 am

With Israel on the Sidelines, Hamas and ISIS Fight in Gaza

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Members of Hamas's 'military wing' in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah Jan. 31, 2017. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Members of Hamas’s ‘military wing’ in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah Jan. 31, 2017. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90. – Terrorists affiliated with ISIS are challenging Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip and trying to topple the regime there, which they accuse of being un-Islamic and lacking in jihadist spirit.

This explosive and complex situation reflects the fact that Hamas prefers to exploit the current absence of a full-scale conflict with Israel to build up its military wing, fill up its rocket depots and dig tunnels for future cross-border attacks. Yet at the same time, the Islamic State-affiliated groups, known as Salafi jihadists, insist on armed conflict with Israel right now.

The division is not merely tactical. At its ideological core, the Islamic State considers Hamas to be a counterfeit movement, due to its willingness to embrace Palestinian nationalism and blend it with an Islamic identity. In the Islamic State’s worldview, all forms of nationalism are to be discarded in favor of a single global Islamic identity.

Professor Boaz Ganor, the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told that Hamas’ challenges in dealing with the Salafi jihadists are similar to the issues Fatah and the Palestinian Authority had — and continue to have — with Hamas itself.

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“One of the central mistakes made by Yasser Arafat in the 1990s after he returned to the [Gaza] Strip and to the West Bank in the context of the Oslo Accords was that, when Fatah could have, they chose not to harm Hamas’ infrastructure. They never fought Hamas, and actually chose to safeguard the organization’s capabilities,” Ganor said.

“It was convenient for Arafat to paint Fatah as the moderate side, while the alternatives are the radical Hamas members. He tried to ride on the Hamas tiger. But in 2007, the tiger devoured Fatah in Gaza, and in the future, perhaps it will do the same in the West Bank,” he said. “Now, Hamas is making exactly the same mistake.”

If Hamas were to choose to crush the Salafi jihadists in Gaza, it could do so “without difficulties,” Ganor argued. “But they don’t want to do this. It is comfortable for them to have a more extreme element than them in the Palestinian arena. This portrays Hamas as a rational and stabilizing force in the arena,” he said.

The strategy appears to be working, according to Ganor, at least on the surface. Israel refrained from destroying Hamas during the two-month Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, out of a deep concern that such a result would create a vacuum filled by the Salafi jihadists.

Now, amid Hamas’ new approach, Ganor says that its fate “will be the same as Fatah. If they do not deal with the Salafis now, the tiger could easily devour them in the future.”

The Islamic State-affiliated armed groups in Gaza pose a present and future threat to Hamas’ rule, since they can create a sudden security escalation that will drag Hamas into a large-scale conflict with Israel, even if neither Hamas nor Israel desire one.

The situation has gotten even more complex with the resent ascension to power of Yayha Sinwar, a Hamas hard-liner even by the terror group’s brutal standards.

Sinwar, who is a prominent figure in Hamas’ military wing, is urging cooperation with ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. The “Sinai Province” ISIS franchise is sympathetic to the conflict being waged by its brethren in Gaza against Hamas, but also works with Hamas to smuggle weapons into the region.

Sinwar promoted these ties and ignored objections from Hamas’ political wing. That, however, is no guarantee that Sinwar will continue this policy, according to Shlomo Brom, who heads the Israeli-Palestinian Relations Program at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

Brom told that despite the many reports claiming to forecast Sinwar’s conduct, “I have no idea how he will behave. All that has been written on this subject so far is based on the incorrect assumption that if someone behaved in a certain way in an organization until now, that person will behave in the same way in the future.”

Brom said that once Sinwar takes up leadership of Hamas’ political bureau in Gaza, he will have a different view than he did in the military wing.

Brom, who served as the head of the IDF’s Strategic Planning Division in the General Staff Planning Branch, believes that the main goal of the Salafi jihadists is to delegitimize Hamas’ regime.

“I don’t think the Salafi jihadists can pose a significant challenge to the Hamas regime at this stage. But they are a problem for Hamas. They outflank them on the jihadist map, as seen through rocket attacks, and statements. They aim to tell the Palestinian public that there is no difference between Hamas and Fatah. Just like Fatah is seen as an ineffective collaborator of Israel, Hamas is portrayed by the Salafis as the same,” Brom said.

Salafi rocket attacks could entangle Hamas in a major problem with Israel in the future, Brom warned, which is why these groups launch them. They seek to use the Israeli Air Force to expose Hamas to Israeli retaliation, he added.

Hamas, seeking to avoid an escalation, does not respond to Israel’s retaliatory strikes, and this further reinforces the Salafi message that Hamas has turned into “Fatah two,” Brom added.

Yet Hamas may be able to counteract this challenge by improving relations with Egypt, which has been the goal of a series of recent high-level meetings between the parties in Cairo.

Hamas sent both military wing and political wing delegations to Egypt in recent weeks, as part of a bid to improve ties with the powerful regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Relations with Egypt have, until now, been openly hostile, with Cairo identifying Hamas as a core partner of its domestic Islamist enemies and an active supporter of the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai.

Hamas could try to play a double game, Brom said, by improving ties with Egypt and maintaining links with Sinai Province, though this approach could blow up in Hamas’ face, he warned.

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