By Annabelle Timsit
The sound of sirens and the rush to bomb shelters will once again disrupt the peace of Israelis and Palestinians alike this summer in the Negev and in Gaza. This time, however, the blame is less easily placed. Though Israeli citizens have been told to direct their judgment towards Hamas, the past year has seen a diversification of actors and agendas within the Palestinian territories, which makes understanding the renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence even more complicated. The root of the problem? The rise in power of Daesh-affiliated Salafis in Gaza.
When I was in Israel two weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a former IDF soldier, who told me in hushed tones that the situation in Gaza was one that Israel had never faced before, and was ill-equipped to face now. The situation he is referring to is not only happening in the Palestinian territories. In the Arab world there has been a steady increase in the number of violent extremist groups claiming an affiliation with Daesh and perpetrating attacks in its name. In Gaza, it is clear that these groups believe they are acting in accordance with Daesh’s mission. The most prominent one in the Palestinian territories, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, issued a statement as early as February 2014, asserting that it was “committed to helping ISIS and bolstering its ranks.” The relationship between these groups and Hamas, however, seems to be full of surprises.
Contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim, Hamas is not ISIS and ISIS is not Hamas. As evidenced by the recent round of Hamas-led strikes against Salafis operating in Gaza, the two groups are far from bosom bows. Though Hamas began by giving its tacit approval to the spread of Salafi propaganda in the Gaza Strip, relations have been getting worse since the infamous Ibn Taymiyyah mosque siege of 2009, during which an armed Islamist organization declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Palestinian territories. Twenty-four people were killed and, since then, many Salafis have been locked up in Palestinian cells. The spread of Daesh in Gaza, however, is a whole other ball game, one that Hamas militants are not willing to risk playing around with. Whereas Hamas’s interests lie in the immediate vicinity of the Strip (reclaiming Palestine and eradicating the Jewish state from the maps), Daesh’s worldview is regional. It seeks to unite the borders of most of the territories we know today as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. Clearly, the two groups are in very different leagues.
There is no reason to believe that Daesh has established an official branch in the Gaza Strip, and certainly no reason to believe that they will in the near future. However, with tensions at a breaking point, much of the infrastructure destroyed since last summer, and unemployment high amongst Palestinian youth, there is cause for concern that recruitment amongst these Salafi factions – which have financial and political connections in the Sinai Peninsula, adjacent to Gaza – will be met with an unreasonably high rate of success, further complicating the chance for stability in the region and delaying the rebuilding of the Strip.
Out of the ashes, a phoenix rises – and in the fight against this more violent and intransigent force, the Israeli government and Hamas seem to have struck an uneasy truce. According to Haaretz sources, the two have reached a point where Israeli attacks against Hamas forces are forms of “symbolic retaliation” and where the government actually seeks to strengthen Hamas control in the Strip (as long as it maintains the ceasefire) while trying to operate new channels of mediation with Hamas negotiators. There is no reason to believe that this will mean a long-term truce between the two parties, but opening channels of communication (even to fight a common enemy) can only lead to better chances of mediation in any future peace deal.
The old adage says, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When one looks at the current situation in the Gaza Strip, however, the opposite seems to hold true; to defeat an enemy far more dangerous than Hamas, the Israeli government seems to be ready to form an “odd partnership” with its long term foe. It remains to be seen whether this tenuous partnership will be enough to fight the all-powerful tidal wave that is the Islamic State.