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Jan 19, 2011 | 13:21 GMT

13 mins read

A Politicized Hamas and its Jihadist Rivals in Gaza

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has ordered security forces to enforce a two-year-old cease-fire and stop militants from firing rockets into Israel. The order came after Hamas leaders met with local militant groups to agree to a cessation of rocket attacks in order to prevent an Israeli military operation in the Palestinian territory. While Hamas has hegemonic power in Gaza, it does not have a monopoly on militant force, and various militant groups — particularly hard-line Salafis — complicate its position.
On Jan. 13, after Hamas leaders met with local militant groups, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh issued an order for all rocket attacks against Israel to cease and for militant groups operating in Gaza to enforce a de facto cease-fire that Hamas instituted in January 2009. Ever since it formally became a part of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) through a landslide victory in 2006 elections and seized control of the Gaza Strip in a 2007 coup, Hamas has publically dialed back its direct attacks against Israel. Instead, it has preferred to rely on front groups to carry out attacks whenever the need arises to increase pressure on the Israeli government. But Hamas' more political stance has widened rifts between Hamas and its rival militant groups, which are striving to fill the void in resisting Israel and upholding the militant Palestinian banner. Hamas rose to power by providing public services that the weak state authority, the PNA, could not provide. Since it forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, however, it has been more and more difficult for Hamas to furnish these services because of financial and material constraints. This growing inability, along with external pressures from countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria that have been trying to contain Hamas, has created a fertile environment for the growth of rival militant groups that seek to profit from Hamas' political instability. Until recently, Hamas has had little interest in preventing these groups from attacking Israel and has either cooperated outright with logistical help or simply allowed other groups to carry out their own independent offensives. Hamas has benefited from past conflicts, such as the rocket campaign in 2006 and provocations in late 2008 that drove Israel to invade in early 2009, by leveraging the threat of violence in order to get concessions from Israel, Egypt and Fatah. At the same time, Hamas attempted to maintain its status as the leading Palestinian militant group by using rocket attacks to force concessions from Israel. This strategy of permitting violence against Israel perpetuated an environment of intra-Palestinian nationalist rivalries. However, unlike Hezbollah, the militant group-cum-political force in Lebanon that has competed with the state for providing social services to Lebanese citizens, Hamas has not been able to effectively control resources in Gaza to significantly raise living standards. Since winning the 2006 election, Hamas has been in the position of primary provider for Gaza residents without having a true state apparatus to back it up. The reality of Israeli control over Gaza has forced Hamas to become less radical, a process already in place since gaining political power, and shifted the movement toward the center, alienating many of its more hard-line members and making space for new ones to fill the radical void. Many of these more radical Hamas members and their sub-units have rebelled, in some instances starting new militant groups to take up the cause of opposing Israel. As a result, Hamas has turned the focus of its security forces from Israel toward gaining some control over the militant groups operating in Gaza. Hamas security forces have raided mosques and neighborhoods, detaining, arresting and killing militant group members and confiscating their weapons. All of these militant groups, including Hamas, agree on the need for an independent Palestinian state but disagree on the image of that state. Two main factors — religiosity and participation in Palestinian politics — divide Gaza's militant actors into four categories:

Hamas Security Forces

When Hamas took control over Gaza in a 2007 coup, it established two new police branches within the Hamas Interior Ministry. One branch was the uniformed street police, which recruited from the general public, was more publicly accountable and responded mainly to local grievances like neighborhood disputes. The other branch, known as "Internal Security," was a plainclothes division known for its brutality in dealing with suspected collaborators with Israel, Fatah supporters and Salafi-jihadist extremists who challenged Hamas' directives. Both branches, and especially the more elite Internal Security force, are known to draw from members of Hamas' militant wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab al-Ghossain has said that many members of the al-Qassam Brigades operate as part of that group and the Internal Security force, though it is unclear what percentage they represent of the 10,000- to 20,000-strong Hamas security force. Hamas supporters can be divided into two ideological pools. One, led by Hamas' prime minister in Gaza, Haniyeh, favors continued restraint while the other, led by Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, vies for greater militancy. Their different approaches reflect the different levels of risk tolerance between the internal leadership of the former and the external leadership of the latter. Haniyeh in Gaza has a much more personal incentive not to provoke Israeli air strikes than Meshaal in Damascus. However, Meshaal's control over much of Hamas' finances — according to a STRATFOR source in the region, he is able to get financial assistance from both Saudi Arabia and Iran — ensures that he maintains significant clout in Gaza. The al-Qassam Brigades, led by Ahmed Jabari, are known to be closer to Meshaal's point of view, and some attribute the camp's radicalism to the brigades' more conservative Salafi membership. The Gaza Salafi movement, which has continued to grow in the last decade, especially since Hamas entered politics in 2006, can be divided into three segments: those who are obedient to Hamas, those who belong to independent Salafi-jihadist groups and those who do not take part in any militant actions. The Salafi movement poses a threat to Hamas because there are deep theological differences in the austere Salafist interpretation of Islam and the more modernist, Muslim Brotherhood ideology of Hamas. One way Hamas has tried to counterbalance the Salafi threat has been by incorporating many Salafis into the al-Qassam Brigades, proving that as long as its members defer to Hamas leadership, theological differences can be tolerated. Rifts within the Hamas movement between its military and political spheres create room for external groups to capitalize on these fissures, specifically the Salafi-jihadists not aligned with Hamas who can appeal to the Hamas-linked Salafist elements.

Nationalist Islamist Groups

The only group in this category is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which has long been the second-most powerful Palestinian militant group after Hamas, with close to 1,000 members. The PIJ differs from Hamas in that it does not participate in national elections or offer a network of social services. While Hamas is the successor movement to the old Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, PIJ — despite being a Sunni Islamist group — was to a great extent inspired by the 1979 revolution in Iran. Because the PIJ has not developed an extensive social network like Hamas, it has not developed a cohesive political identity that could allow it to challenge Hamas in elections. The PIJ also diverges from Hamas by receiving a majority of its support from Iran, while Hamas has been playing a delicate balancing act to obtain support from countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The PIJ's armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, claims that there was an increase in arrests of its members by Hamas in 2010. However, the al-Quds Brigades continues to launch rockets at Israel as a way to frustrate Hamas' attempts to negotiate with Israel.

Secular Nationalist Groups

This category consists of the armed wings of the Fatah political movement and its splinter groups, as well as other secular, left-leaning movements that in the 1970s split from the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This category of militant actors is the smallest and weakest of the four. The armed wings of Fatah include the prominent al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the smaller Abu al-Rish Brigades (the so-called Fatah Hawks), the Sami al-Ghul Brigades and more radical splinter groups like Tanzim and the Knights of the Tempest. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with approximately 1,000 members in Gaza and the West Bank, and its offshoot, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), with about 500 members in Gaza and the West Bank, are radical left-wing movements active since the late 1960s. Both rely on Syrian backing. Their cause has its roots in what is predominantly an Islamist effort to achieve Palestinian statehood. The PFLP was the second-largest faction of the PLO after Fatah. These groups are now allied with Hamas out of resentment over Fatah's conciliatory stance with Israel, which weakened the entire secular militant movement. They find themselves working on and off with Islamist militant groups in Gaza in order to maintain active resistance against Israel.

Transnational Islamists: Salafist-Jihadist Groups

Though the Salafist movement in Gaza as a whole does not promote violence, there are a growing number of Salafist groups in Gaza that operate like small mercenary gangs — the larger ones numbering in the hundreds — that are concentrated in areas like Gaza City, Rafah and Khan Younis. These Salafist groups are steadily drawing support from those who are unhappy with Hamas' political role. Groups like Jaljalat formed right after Hamas decided to participate in the Palestinian elections in 2006 and formed connections with al Qaeda prime. Jaljalat was created by a former al-Qassam Brigades commander and other Hamas Salafis, indicating the level of dissension within al-Qassam's ranks following Hamas' political moves. Additional Salafist groups continued to emerge after 2006 and are likely gathering strength to this day. Unlike Hamas, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, these groups adhere to the ideology of al Qaeda prime, though there is no overwhelming evidence of direct operational ties to al Qaeda. Consistent with al Qaeda's ideology, these groups' transnational agenda uses the Palestinian territories as a launching pad for their long-term aims to establish the caliphate. And this is the key distinction between them, Hamas and PIJ, in that they are not seeking a Palestinian nation-state that is Islamic. Rather, they are trying to use the Palestinian issue to further their transnational aims. Salafi-jihadists wage war not only against Israeli targets — attacking Israeli patrols in Gaza, storming border crossings as suicide bombers and launching rockets into Israel — but also against Western institutions in Gaza such as Internet cafes and Christian centers deemed un-Islamic. Attacking sites inside Gaza puts Salafist groups at odds with the Hamas and the PIJ, which focus their energies outward, against Israel. This is likely where the moniker "al Qaeda in the Levant" comes from, encompassing a heap of militant groups that range in size from dozens to hundreds of members, divided mostly by neighborhood or clan. However, it is important to note that Salafist groups in the Levant do not exhibit the cohesiveness of more formal al Qaeda franchises in Yemen, Somalia or Iraq. One Salafist leader went so far as to declare the Islamic Emirate of Gaza in an August 2009 sermon. Abd al-Latif Musa (aka Abu Noor al-Maqdisi), head of Jund Ansar Allah, was killed along with 26 of his followers in a subsequent raid on his mosque in Rafah by Hamas security forces that same month. The raid served to unify Salafist groups in opposition to Hamas' rule, and there have been more clashes between Salafists and Hamas since then. As groups that emerged from the margins of Gazan militancy within the last five years, Salafist groups share common goals and limited expertise. Operating in close proximity to one another in the tiny territory of the Gaza Strip, they do coordinate offenses and maintain direct contact with one another, but they are reluctant to coalesce into one main force because to do so would make it easier for Hamas — or Israel — to destroy them all in one strike, as was largely done to Jund Ansar Allah in the 2009 mosque raid. There is also a great deal of competition within them given that they are clan-based outfits. One of the most prominent Salafist groups is Jaish al-Islam, which has approximately 450 armed members, most from the Daghmash clan of Gaza City. Distinguishing itself through a specialization in kidnapping, the group was responsible for the abduction of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007 — whom it tried to use to secure the release of Abu Qatada, an al Qaeda spiritual leader in Europe — and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. The group eventually turned over both hostages to Hamas. Israeli air raids targeted and killed three Jaish al-Islam operatives in Gaza in November 2010, claiming they were connected to a Sinai plot to kidnap Israelis. Hamas has also put pressure on Jaish al-Islam by killing and arresting many of its members, preventing the group from firing rockets at Israel and forcing it to abide by Hamas' authority. A key advantage Hamas has had over its militant rivals is the social services it has provided to Gaza residents, which have increased the group's longevity and helped guard against defections. But as this ability has diminished, Salafist charities have started providing food for the poor and offering free Koran lessons, which in turn has given Gazans an incentive to join the Salafist cause. However, Hamas typically seizes control of relief aid as soon as it enters Gaza for its own charities, limiting the scope of social services that any other group can administer. There will always be groups to fill the void of resistance to Israel as Hamas plays out its political role — a similar phenomenon is currently under way in Northern Ireland — and the question remains: Will Hamas be able to prevent these groups from undermining its control over Gaza? While Hamas still has the ability to stifle the resistance activities of the smaller groups and outwardly disassociate itself from their hostility against Israel, this is a short-term advantage. If Hamas continues to discourage the use of force against Israel, it stands to marginalize itself within the militant community. It will be important to monitor the internal tensions within Hamas and look for potential breaking points between its political and armed spheres that Salafi-jihadists would be eager to exploit. Hamas is, for the moment, uninterested in confronting Israel and prefers to eliminate its competitors in Gaza before turning its full attention to Fatah in the West Bank. But it remains to be seen whether Salafist pressure in Gaza will drive Hamas toward reconciliation with Fatah or whether a weakened Hamas will be less confident about engaging with a stronger Fatah. While Salafist groups do not pose an existential threat to Hamas in Gaza, they can certainly affect its political future within the PNA.

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