Reports of a secret war being waged by Hamas against Salafi-jihadist groups in the Gaza Strip are indicative of increasing challenges to the former’s security control within the enclave. Recent attacks launched by Salafist cells toward Israel and on Hamas members, including those with purported links to ISIS, impede the fragile ceasefire that exists between Hamas and Israel. Hamas’ current approach to violent Salafist cells in Gaza is equally demonstrative of an ongoing warming of relations between Cairo and Hamas, and one that has afforded Hamas international legitimacy and an ease in border restrictions. Aided by Israeli intelligence and military operations, Egypt has been engaged in the largest military campaign in the Sinai since the 1973 war with Israel in an effort to curb ISIS-affiliated militants. The expanded crackdown in the Gaza Strip is thus also meant to provide further confirmation of Hamas’ new-found allegiance to Cairo and its definitive break from past collaboration with Sinai-based militant groups.
A delicate status quo
Hamas’ adoption of a more aggressive attitude toward armed Salafists in the Gaza Strip comes in the wake of attacks on the group’s political and military leadership. This summer, suicide bombers believed to be linked to ISIS killed three Hamas police officers in Gaza City. According to Gazan officials, the recent arrest of four Salafist cells disrupted further planned attacks on Hamas security forces and representatives. Salafist factions have also allegedly been responsible for ramping up tensions with Israel, by launching long-range rockets into Israeli territory in defiance of fragile ceasefire agreements between Hamas and Israel. In March 2019, both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) denied responsibility for rockets fired at Tel Aviv –– in spite of reports suggesting that the military capability for such attacks lies exclusively with these two groups. Hamas has, at times, contracted PIJ to hit Israeli target to avoid direct involvement. Nevertheless, Hamas’ reported confiscation of long-range rockets held by Salafi cells points to the existence of a sophisticated arsenal of weapons that can reach far into Israeli territory.
This is not the first time that Hamas has sought to curb violent Salafi-jihadi activities in Gaza. Over the past decade, Hamas has, as Benedatta Berti notes, become more determined in regulating and controlling these groups, mostly as a reaction to the Salafi-jihadis’ repeated defiance of the Hamas government. Salafi-jihadi groups, such as Jaysh al-Islam, have emerged in the Palestinian Territories –– and predominately Gaza –– since the mid-2000s, where they have been able to gain strength due to the ongoing power struggle between Fatah and Hamas and capitalize on disgruntlement with Hamas’ perceived accommodation with Israel and its gradual approach to Islamization. This latter criticism equally derives from the radical ideology which underlies Salafi-jihadism in Gaza. Similarly to criticism levelled at the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement out of which Hamas emerged, Salafi-jihadi groups denounce pragmatic governance, including electoral participation, and seek a transnational religious dimension to Palestinian resistance that is closer to the rhetoric used by al-Qaeda than armed Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas.
Despite diverging ideologies and practices, Hamas has in the past cooperated with Salafi-jihadi groups, including those based in the Sinai Peninsula, in an effort to buoy its Islamist credentials and achieve common objectives. In the aftermath of Mohammed Morsi’s ousting and Egypt’s subsequent campaign to destroy Hamas’ underground tunnel infrastructure, Israeli reports revealed the existence of a transactional relationship between Hamas and ISIS’ Sinai branch, Wilayat Sinai (WS). In return for cross-border weapons smuggling through the so-called “Libya Highway” and the Sudan route, Hamas is said to have provided critical logistics and military training to WS and its predecessor, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, in addition to advanced weapons and medical assistance.
Jihadi groups in the Sinai also benefitted from the influx of Gazan fighters, including members of the Jund Ansar Allah movement, which has aided WS in launching a deadly insurgency against the Egyptian regime. The reported reconciliation in 2013 with Salafi groups in the Gaza Strip through the mediation of Kuwaiti and Qatari clerics, too, was attributed to the removal of Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi and reflected what one Hamas source referred to as a relationship “based on common local interest that trumps ideology.” Still, the then established joint committee evidently failed to solve internal problems and ensure Salafists’ adherence to cease-fire agreements with Israel while ensuring Hamas’ military superiority.
An Egyptian-Hamas détente
A warming of ties between Hamas and the Egyptian regime has also proven an obstacle to Salafi-Hamas cooperation. The execution of an alleged Hamas collaborator by ISIS’ Sinai branch in 2018, according to the video’s narrator, was partly conducted in response to Hamas’ crackdown on Islamist militant groups in Gaza and its “following in the footsteps of the disbelieving West.” The coordinated attack by Gazan Salafi-jihadists in an ISIS operation that targeted an Egyptian security checkpoint in July 2017 was similarly attributed to militants’ discontent with the growing Egyptian-Hamas rapprochement –– and one that has involved Hamas disclaiming its links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The relationship between Hamas and Egypt has improved markedly since 2017. Beyond functioning as a mediatory between Hamas and Fatah and Hamas and Israel, Egypt is believed to have offered concessions on trade and free movement across the Rafah crossing in return for moves to secure the border –– through the establishment of a buffer zone –– against ISIS fighters. Since May 2018, Egypt has opened the border crossing with Gaza and Hamas delegations visiting Cairo, including those involving Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, have become a common occurrence.
In a further sign of détente, Hamas recently ordered its supporters to refrain from commenting on ongoing demonstrations against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s rule, contrary to its position in 2011, when it welcomed the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and clamped down on pro-Egyptian rallies in Gaza. According to Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassam, this change in position is a consequence of “the relationship with Egypt [being] at its best and there [being] continuous communication between the Hamas leadership and the leaders in Egypt, and an understanding on bilateral issues such as securing borders and fighting extremism.”
With the outside aid upon which the Gaza Strip has depended drying up and an impending humanitarian crisis enveloping the enclave, Hamas might become more willing to concede to Egyptian –– and Israeli –– demands in an attempt to garner developmental support and address criticism of its economic policies. While the majority of Gazans (64 percent) polled in 2018 supported a long-term cessation of violence with Israel that would ease the siege, any perceived political concessions are bound to feed Salafi-jihadi rhetoric. Questions concerning Hamas’ commitment to the Palestinian cause thus are likely to fuel further violent challenges to the group’s rule and, in turn, test its dedication to pragmatic governance.
Grace Wermenbol is a Non-resident Scholar at MEI who specializes in the contemporary geopolitics of the broad Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.The views expressed in this article are her own.
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