The Dark Side of HamasRadical Islam in Gaza
International Crisis Group
Recent clashes between Israel and Hamas have raised serious questions about Hamas’s relationship with more radical militant organizations. In the past year, Salafi-Jihadist groups have seen a steady rise in membership stemming from frustration within Hamas’ military wing. Though these groups are small and their strategic capabilities poor, they present an ideological challenge to Hamas and threaten to destabilize the tenuous cease-fire. Since Hamas took over and restored security in Gaza, Salafi-Jihadis have had much less freedom of maneuver. Hamas is quick to point out the small size of Gaza’s radical Islamist groups. Salafi-Jihadists are few and have executed no significant military operations. But because a majority of its members were once part of Hamas, its actions have begun to be scrutinized.
The Salafi-Jihadists adhere to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and see themselves not as liberators of Palestine but as part of a global movement of armed fighters defending Muslims against non-Muslim enemies. They appeal to members of Hamas’s military wing, who are critical of the decision to not fight Israel or implement Shari’a. Although their current strength is low, these groups—through rocket attacks as illustrated recently—could trigger an escalation, which could have serious consequences for Gaza and the region as a whole.
To understand the emergence of the Salafi-Jihadists, we must return to 2006 when Hamas first rose to power. Hamas had not expected its electoral victory and was therefore unprepared to govern. Following the election, its ranks swiftly swelled, leaving little time to train followers fully or prepare them for the challenges of responsibility. Fresh recruits suddenly were in demand, for both security and administration, and these only became greater after its 2007 takeover. As a police spokesman said, “After the elections, everyone wanted to be Hamas, and many were brought in before we could give them a proper education.” This rapid expansion was not without its drawbacks, one of which was that serious differences in ideology were papered over. But as time has passed, these differences have been heightened, and the Salafi-Jihadists are but one facet.
While these militants are calling on Hamas to Islamize and militarize, they acknowledge the difficulty of Hamas’s position. The government must keep foreign considerations in mind. There is debate within Hamas about the methods and speed with which the promotion of Islam should be pursued, as well as disagreement among Gazans about the degree to which the movement has pursued it. Due to the exigencies of governing, and pressure from both their supporters and the West, the Hamas leadership is being pulled in opposite directions. The result has been a zigzagging policy, where hard-line policies are proposed and then retracted when confronted with pressure. Yet the most worrying situation has been a series of bombings aimed at targets that appear un-Islamic and for which no suspect has been publicly tried. In addition, the random rocket attacks against Israel by militants has destabilized and delegitimized the Hamas government.
By punishing Hamas for rockets launched by groups out of its control, Israel has provoked precisely the militants Hamas had been making efforts to keep in line. Spurring on the radical wing of Hamas and delegitimizing its leaders has had the opposite effect of Israel’s intent. This shift has led many in Gaza to conclude that the next armed confrontation with Israel is inevitable. It remains uncertain whether the current escalation can be contained and whether violence can be avoided. The consequences of another war, particularly in the current state of regional unrest, could be devastating. The beneficiaries of a confrontation would be Hamas’s more militant members and the Salafi-Jihadists seeking to recruit them. The report concludes that, “the best way to minimize the risk is to deal with Hamas not only as a military organization but also as a political movement.”
Published: Friday 15 April 2011 Updated: Friday 15 April 2011