Hamas faces growing radical opposition to its new direction
Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since carrying out a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007, is facing a new challenge not from Israel or Fatah but from extremists belonging to Daesh. Last Tuesday, two suicide attacks on police barricades, which killed three policemen and injured others, were carried out by what Hamas called a “Gaza cell” that is linked to Daesh.
Hamas arrested more than 30 individuals and said that at least 12 were directly involved in the suicide attacks. It said the attacks were to be followed by an operation to blow up a bus carrying Hamas security personnel. Initially, the Islamist movement blamed Israel and later Fatah for “using agents to disturb peace in Gaza.” But the Israeli media has revealed that members of the cell were former Islamic Jihad members and at least two had belonged to its military arm, Al-Quds Brigades.
A year ago, a group affiliated with Daesh in Sinai declared war on Hamas for negotiating with Israel, participating in elections and for its links to Iran. Hamas had arrested a number of extremists who had belonged to Al-Qaeda in the past, but this new development is an indication that Gaza has become a fertile ground for Daesh followers, who see Hamas and other Palestinian groups as apostates. What is particularly worrying is that those embracing Daesh ideology have access to explosives and military know-how and are able to hit sensitive targets inside the Strip.
Hamas has said little about the threat of such terrorists in Gaza. But the fact that some are former members of Al-Quds Brigades and Hamas’ own military wing, Izziddin Al-Qassam Brigades, may shed light on why the movement denied knowledge of who had fired rockets against Israel in June. Even Israel’s military has hinted that the recent firing of rockets against nearby settlements was not authorized by Hamas.
The irony is that, when Hamas was founded in 1987, it was seen as a radical, militant, right-wing movement that was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and was against a peaceful settlement with Israel. But, in recent years and after going through major military confrontations with Israel, the movement has shifted to the center; accepting the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders and distancing itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also involved in indirect negotiations with Israel, through Egypt and other intermediaries, to reach a long-term state of calm that would lead to the lifting of the economic blockade on Gaza.
A group affiliated with Daesh in Sinai declared war on Hamas for negotiating with Israel, participating in elections and for its links to Iran.
Even more ironic is a recent fatwa issued by an official religious committee in Gaza that forbids the carrying out of military operations in the name of Islam, adding that those who do so will not be considered martyrs.
What could be more worrying for Hamas leaders is the state of its alliance with Islamic Jihad. Officially the two groups remain strong allies, but Hamas’ priorities have changed in the past few years from confronting Israel to holding on to power at any cost. Islamic Jihad, with strong links to Iran, remains committed to the destruction of Israel and to creating an Islamic Palestinian state — two ideological beliefs that now appear to contradict Hamas’ policy and objectives. Israel has called on Hamas to rein in Islamic Jihad, which it blames for the recent rise in violence along the Gaza border.
The rise of Daesh-affiliated groups in Gaza is also an indication of the state of despair that is spreading in the enclave, where more than 1.7 million people live in an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The UN agency, UNRWA, is responsible for more than a million refugees in Gaza and it recently announced that its operation will suffer due to budget deficits.
Hamas itself is holding on to power only because Qatar is supporting it with millions of dollars, in coordination with Israel. These funds are disbursed to Hamas employees, fighters and loyalists and rarely find their way to Gaza’s poor. Needless to say that, after 12 years in power, Hamas’ popularity among ordinary Gazans is at a record low, with a majority blaming it for their economic woes.
Under these circumstances, Hamas now finds itself in an awkward position, having turned its back on all efforts to end the rift with Fatah and the PA. Its main objective now is to reach an agreement with Israel that will keep it in power indefinitely.
Last week’s two suicide attacks are a reminder that all is not well in Gaza and that Hamas will soon find itself facing growing opposition from radical right-wing groups as it moves away from its historical ideological platform. It is now also clear that its understandings with Israel are more important than any agreement with its Palestinian opposites.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010