'Moderate Hamas' joins the fight against Islamic State

'Moderate Hamas' joins the fight against Islamic State
4 min read
18 February, 2017
Inspired by the Islamic State group, some radicalised youths in Gaza see Hamas as too moderate for their taste, and the Palestinian militant group is cracking down.
Hamas armed fighters marching in Gaza City in March 2016 [Anadolu]
Hamas is too moderate for some radicalised youths in Gaza.

A small group of pro-Islamic State fighters in Gaza have been making news in recent months, launching largely useless rocket attacks against Israel without Hamas' approval.

As a result, Hamas, which rules Gaza and which is targeted for reprisals by Israel each time rockets make it into Israeli territory, has started to put an end to these launchings - inspiring angry opposition among a small set of defiant, disenfranchised youths.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for each rocket, regardless of the comparative lack of danger such rockets have traditionally posed - and have routinely responded with punitive strikes against important Hamas positions.

"These jihadist fighters are not fighting the Israeli occupation," Mahmoud al-Zahr, a Hamas spokesperson, told The New Arab.

"They are only interested in fighting Hamas because they think that Hamas is moderate - and this moderation to them is 'un-Islamic'."

The latest batch of rockets being fired into Israel are amateur efforts, having mostly only hit agricultural fields and other uninhabited spaces.

"These are not rockets that are being smuggled in from Sinai," says Diaa Kahlout, The New Arab's correspondent in Gaza City.

"They are locally manufactured, weak weapons - their strikes do not affect Israel in any meaningful way."

Who are they?

A lot of the jihadist fighters launching rockets into Israel belong to small-level groups, including "Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis" [Partisans of Jerusalem], which the US National Counter-terrorism Centre describes as IS in the Sinai.

"Salafist jihadism is not native to Gaza, these are people who have been affected by online recruitment," said Kahlout.

"There is no IS or al-Qaeda leadership in Gaza that would rally people to that cause.

"These are disenfranchised and disillusioned youths who may have once been Hamas members."

According to Janes, many of these young people came into contact with the Islamic State group's extremist ideologies in Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

These are just uneducated people who misunderstand Quranic verses and Hadiths

The southern Gaza border with Egypt has long been the principal smuggling point into the besieged strip, with extensive tunnel networks allowing the passage of everything from food to weapons to building supplies.

This porous network has allowed some in Gaza to form a close working relationship with various members of Wilayat Sinai, an IS-linked armed group that has been fighting the Egyptian army for years.

Wilayat Sinai were responsible for some of Egypt's most terrible recent attacks, including a bomb attack on a Coptic Church in December, killing 27 people.

Political wrangling

Hamas may have tolerated these young fighters for so long because it helps them craft their image as a moderating force in Gaza, argues Professor Boaz Ganor, founder of Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

As a resistance movement, Hamas cannot allow Gaza residents to believe that it is opposed to attacks against Israel, but neither can it allow Israel's retaliatory attacks on military positions to damage its own offensive capabilities.

The Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, has reportedly been steadily building missile stockpiles to levels similar to that seen before the 2013 war with Israel.

"Hamas is working intensively to improve its capabilities, taking advantage of the state of calm that has prevailed in the Gaza Strip since the last war," an Israeli intelligence officer claimed in January.

There was a large campaign of arrests by Hamas against Salafist jihadists in Gaza two months ago

"There was a large campaign of arrests by Hamas against Salafist jihadists in Gaza two months ago," said Kahlout.

"They are a small group but Hamas has cracked down on them."

With Israel's repeated warnings of repercussions if these largely ineffective rockets don't stop, Hamas has opted to flex its muscles and clamp down on Gaza's more radical youth.

"These are just uneducated people who misunderstand Quranic verses and Hadiths," said Zahr.

"This is common across the world and across different religions - even in Christianity."

Follow Rob Cusack on Twitter: @rob_cusack