The dangerous escalation between Israel and Hamas demonstrates once more the need for both a fresh approach toward Gaza and a better understanding of Hamas’s relationship with rival Islamist groups.
Radical Islam in Gaza, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the impact of Salafi-Jihadi groups in Gaza. Adhering to a more militant brand of Sunni Islam than Hamas, these groups pose both a practical and an ideological threat to the movement. As progress toward normalising life, engaging the world or achieving a prisoner exchange stalls, the uncompromising outlook of the Salafi-Jihadis becomes more appealing to militants.
“These groups are comprised mostly of former members of Hamas and other established factions. Many of their recruits are disaffected younger activists who see Hamas as compromising with Israel while getting very little in return”, said Nathan Thrall, Crisis Group’s Middle East Analyst.
Local Salafi-Jihadi groups emerged primarily after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and expanded their activities during the subsequent fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Over time, Hamas’s relationship with them has shifted from cooperation to antagonism: since taking over Gaza, Hamas has limited their freedom of manoeuvre. Clashes with Hamas security forces killed dozens and, in one case, in effect wiped out one of the largest groups.
The influence of Salafi-Jihadis is not preponderant, but nor is it negligible. Although their numbers are few, they are responsible for a significant proportion of rockets fired at Israel. Moreover, they accuse Hamas of laxity in enforcing religious mores, a charge that resonates with many movement supporters and leads the government to greater zeal in applying Islamic law.
“The policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas has only exacerbated the problem”, said Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “As the international community seeks a new way to address political Islam in the wake of the Arab upheaval, Gaza would be a good place to start”.