Several events in Gaza in recent months have indicated the possible presence of Islamic State affiliates. The highest-profile incident was the arrest of a Salafist cleric on April 6 by Hamas' security forces. More interesting is the series of attacks that preceded and followed the arrest. A number of improvised explosive devices have been set off around Gaza City, typically causing minimal damage and no casualties. A group calling itself the "Islamic State Gaza Governorate" claimed several of the attacks. Although the attacks were not particularly dramatic, and both Hamas and Salafist groups in Gaza quickly brushed away claims of an Islamic State presence, there appears to be some type of Islamic State activity that could threaten Hamas' authority.
The group claiming to represent the Gaza governorate of the Islamic State, or Wilayat Gaza, has made several statements and claimed numerous attacks since late 2014. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on the French Cultural Center in Gaza City in October 2014. The following month, the group issued a statement demanding that women abide by Sharia rules of dress. In December, the group issued a statement threatening to kill a number of writers and poets in Gaza if they did not stop "insulting Islam." By comparison, Hamas has a mild attitude toward social codes relating to dress and literature.
Following the April 6 arrest of a cleric named Adnan Khader Mayat, statements signed by Wilayat Gaza demanded the release of any members of the Islamic State held prisoner in Gaza. Improvised explosive devices blew up in Gaza City on April 6, April 10 and April 17. The attacks, as well as others between late 2014 and now, are a clear warning sign. However, they have stopped short of targeting people or infrastructure.
Hamas has exercised restraint in dealing with these attacks and the threat of Islamic State activity in Gaza generally. Although it is attempting to contain the activities of militant Salafist groups, Hamas has not sought a public confrontation with the Salafists. In the past, Hamas tried to contain Salafist movements' political activities. Now there are signs that Hamas could be shifting toward a strategy of eliminating Salafist activities, but so far Hamas has tried to downplay the Islamic State issue. Statements from Hamas officials typically claim that there is no Islamic State presence in Gaza, and even the attacks conducted by Wilayat Gaza are kept quiet.
Denying Islamic State activity in Gaza is an important part of safeguarding Hamas' legitimacy. Internally, Hamas has always had opposition, but the emergence of a radical jihadist group in the style of Islamic State franchises elsewhere would raise questions about how much control Hamas actually has over militancy in Gaza. In order to maintain its authority and represent Gaza in negotiations — whether with Egypt or Israel — Hamas needs to show it has control of the Gaza Strip.
The Likelihood of an Islamic State Presence
At least a few groups in Gaza sympathize with the Islamic State. One group that could be tied to the attacks in Gaza, posing a serious threat to the territory, is the organization formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The group has been around since 2011 and is mainly based in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where it leads an insurgency. But it has also been active in Gaza. In fact, the group's presence in the region has been referred to separately as Wilayat Sinai and Wilayat Gaza. The group adopted these names after a split in the organization that led the Sinai-based faction to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014.
The cleric arrested April 6 has been affiliated with Wilayat Sinai. His arrest indicates that Hamas has found it necessary to start clamping down on the group. There has not yet been a confrontation or significant attacks, but if pressure between Hamas and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis builds, and Wilayat Gaza is able to draw on its resources in the Sinai, Hamas could encounter difficulties in containing or eliminating the group.
Wilayat Sinai is not the only Salafist organization with connections to the Islamic State in the Gaza Strip. The Mujahideen Shura Council is another group that is well represented in Sinai but bleeds over into Gaza. The group has also openly stated its support for the Islamic State but has not declared its allegiance. However, the group has been known to recruit Palestinian fighters who have joined forces with the Islamic State in Syria.
Another, more obscure organization is Jund Ansar Allah. This group has been dormant since a heavy crackdown by Hamas in 2009 that ended in a large firefight that killed most of Jund Ansar Allah's leaders. In fact, it was this incident that caused the Islamic State — then known as al Qaeda in Iraq — to denounce Hamas. Jund Ansar Allah resurfaced recently when it released a video claiming a second attack on the French Cultural Center in Gaza in December 2014. In the video, the group claims to have conducted the attack in support of the Islamic State. Jund Ansar Allah is also suspected of connections to a unit of Palestinian combatants in Syria that operates under the Islamic State umbrella.
It is clear that the Islamic State has several different connections and some degree of popular support for its activities in the Gaza Strip, where desperate circumstances provide fertile grounds for radicalism. However, there is no sign of a centralized push from Islamic State elements in Syria or Iraq to exert influence or conduct operations in Gaza. The Islamic State does provide a new platform for attempts at expansion. Hamas has so far indicated it is capable of dealing with these challenges. However, though Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip may not be in question, Islamic State activity may already be detrimental to the Palestinian organization.
Hamas depends on outside powers, including Egypt and Iran, to maintain power in Gaza. But shifting relations in the Middle East have caused Hamas to be left without a clear and guaranteed line of support. Egypt's fight against the Sinai insurgency and Cairo's relationship with Israel have caused it to clamp down on arms deliveries to Hamas through the Sinai Peninsula, a route that has also been deteriorated by Saudi Arabia's success in pulling Sudan out of Iran's sphere of influence. Iran's commitments in Syria and Iraq, and more important, its behavior in light of the nuclear deal with world powers, have also altered support for Hamas.
In this context, Hamas needs to make certain that it is not perceived as a potential host for the Islamic State, which would further harm its ties with Egypt. Uncontrolled radical militants in Gaza would also pose the risk of escalating the conflict with Israel. Historically, cracking down on groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Salafist groups with Islamic State ties that conduct attacks on Israel has been a key element of Hamas' ability to maintain its position as the main Palestinian actor in negotiations. Thus far, Hamas has been successful in containing Islamic State activity in the Gaza Strip, but this could change as Hamas either cracks down more forcefully or leaves the problem unchecked.
If Hamas' efforts are effective, Hamas can demonstrate to Egypt that it is capable of handling the problem, assisting Cairo in dealing with its Sinai problem. However, a confrontational policy toward jihadists in Gaza will also make Hamas a bigger target.