Night-time security checkpoints have gone up around Gaza City over the past month — the most visible sign of a crackdown by the ruling Islamist movement Hamas on local followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Isis).
In recent weeks, supporters of Isis have claimed credit for several bombings and Hamas has rounded up and imprisoned dozens of people, officials and analysts in Gaza say.
A group that calls itself “Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem” fired mortars at a Hamas training base in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on May 8, in a rare open attack on the ruling Islamist movement, which prides itself on the tight security it maintains in the Israeli and Egyptian-blockaded Palestinian territory.
Fresh concrete on the front wall of a Hamas security building north of Gaza City marks the spot where one of the explosions by Isis supporters hit. On the other side of the street, plastic sheeting covers the windows of another building that were blown out in the blast.
“They are trying to imitate al-Qaeda or the Islamic State,” says Ahmed Yousef, chairman of the House of Wisdom, a Gaza think-tank affiliated with Hamas. “But they know the wrath of Hamas — if anything goes wrong, they know what could happen to them.”
The violence involving self-proclaimed Isis adherents is being watched warily not only by Hamas, but by officials in neighbouring Israel and Egypt. Israel waged a war against Hamas last summer that killed more than 2,000 but it left its leadership in place for fear of destabilising Gaza and allowing more radical groups to rise in its place.
Some regional analysts now speculate that, were Isis’s influence to expand further in Gaza or Egypt’s adjoining Sinai peninsula, Hamas could end up forging a common cause — openly or otherwise — with either Israel or Egypt, whose military government it also despises. “There might be indirect and undeclared co-operation between Hamas and Egypt, and between Hamas and Israel,” Yoram Schweitzer of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies wrote in a paper about Isis in Gaza published last week.
For now, the number of people involved is small, officials and analysts say. The people involved in the bombings and arrests are local Salafis — adherents of a strict interpretation of Islamic law — rather than an Isis cell under the Syrian-headquartered group’s command.
Mr Yousef says that “fewer than 100” Isis sympathisers have been imprisoned in the Hamas crackdown. Issam Younis, director of the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, estimates that the number of people arrested is closer to 30 or 40.
By contrast, Hamas is thought to have about 35,000 security personnel, including police and members of its al-Qassam military wing, under its command. “In any confrontation between Hamas and the Salafis, they will be crushed by Hamas,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.
Hamas last fought openly with local Salafis in 2009, when the leader of one group, Jund Ansar Allah, declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Gaza. Hamas responded brutally, storming a mosque in Rafah, southern Gaza, where the group was operating and killing more than two dozen people. The challenge to Hamas from radical Islamists to its right comes at a time when Gaza’s ruling movement is under criticism inside the territory for allegedly softening its hardline stance toward Israel.
Some Palestinian militants have expressed frustration with the ruling movement’s military restraint since last summer’s war, and angered by reports by some Palestinian politicians, including President Mahmoud Abbas, that Hamas has held discreet talks with Israel over a long-term military truce.
The quiet was broken last week, when a rocket fired from Gaza hit inside Israel and Israel’s military bombed what it said were four military targets inside Gaza. Israeli officials said they thought that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a rival militant faction, had fired the rocket against the backdrop of an internal political dispute. The challenge from Isis supporters, if only symbolic, further undermines Hamas, analysts say.
“The basic dynamics haven’t changed, but the Salafis have gotten more bold,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “They are now openly attacking and threatening Hamas itself, which is something new.”
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