Analysis

Rogue Islamist Militants in Gaza Aim to Stir the Pot - but Israel Knows Hamas Runs the Show

The Salafi groups in the Strip can't agree on a common leadership, but their strength lies in their ability to challenge Hamas by firing rockets at Israel

Hamas police push back Salafists during at a protest in Gaza City on January 19, 2015.
Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto

Early this month, an Islamic State affiliate in Sinai released a gruesome video of a former Hamas member executing Hamas man Musa Abu Zamat. The judge of the Wilayat Sanai group, named as Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi, condemned Zamat for transferring weapons to Hamas. The video identifies the executioner as Mohammed al-Dajani, a former member of Hamas' military wing.

>>Hamas approaches end-game in Gaza as Israel sharpens its tunnel-elimination prowess | Analysis

Hamas didnt react to the video. Dajanis family issued a statement denouncing the killing as contrary to Islamic law and calling it a despicable murder. Hamas is expected to retaliate, leading to further action by the ultraconservative Salafi groups.

The radical organizations in Gaza have come a long way from Hamas' takeover of the Strip in 2007 to the current score-settling. The term rogue organizations that Israel uses to describe groups sometimes called ISIS Sinai and sometimes Salafi groups refers mainly to a few large organizations, not all of them affiliated to the Islamic State.

The term indicates that Israel sees Hamas as the official ruler in the Gaza Strip, responsible for security and preserving the cease-fire that followed the 2014 war. Israel also sees Hamas as responsible for Gazas civilian apparatus, so by calling anyone who doesnt obey Hamas a rogue, a rebel against Gaza's ruling authority, Israel is almost awarding Hamas legitimate status.

The tension among these radical groups led to violent clashes among them even before some swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. They are believed to have been formed in the 70s by Palestinian students returning from Saudi Arabia, where they were educated and guided by radical Islamic clerics who encouraged them to join the Salafis.

The Salafis are divided into three factions, one that largely sticks to trying to understand the real faith and strives to live as Islams founding fathers did. This faction shuns political or military activity and condemns religious leaders who do otherwise. This is the root of the theological rivalry between the purist Salafi stream and political-Islam movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and their descendants like Hamas in Gaza and Ennahda in Tunisia.

Pagan regimes

The second faction embraces politics as well as religious studies, recognizing the power of politics to push for a sharia state. This faction set up the Salafi parties that the Egyptians are cooperating with in their fight against the Muslim Brotherhood.

A burned truck is seen outside Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshippers, on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. Friday's assault was Egypt's deadliest attack by Islamic extremists in the country's modern history, a grim milestone in a long-running fight against an insurgency led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group.(AP Photo/Tarek Samy)
Tarek Samy/AP

The third faction, called Salafia Jihadia, refuses to take part in the politics of the existing Arab regimes, which it intends to topple. It believes that an Islamic revolution will take place after the destruction of the pagan regimes.

But even this faction has a hard time preserving organizational and ideological unity. Some of its members joined the Islamic State, some joined Al-Qaida, and others are acting independently. These are small groups that missed the chance to win public support in Gaza after Israel left. The withdrawal left them without targets to attack, as their arsenal consisted mainly of light weapons. In contrast, Hamas was well-equipped and capable of striking targets in Israel.

The Salafi groups already castigated Hamas for its participation in the 2006 Palestinian election and tried to prove that Hamas was no different than Fatah. This placed them on a collision course with Hamas, which brutally attacked their mosques, undermining the basis of their activity.

The organizations biggest failure stems from their inability to unite or even agree on a joint religious leadership, even though their theological differences are minute. It appears the reason for the rifts is their leaders personalities, different backgrounds and ambition.

So despite the chase after new recruits, no jihadi group such as Al-Qaida or the Islamic State has recognized any of the Salafi groups in Gaza. Even when it clashed with Hamas, Al-Qaida didnt take the Salafi groups under its wing.

A responsible political regime

Over the past year, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been vying for the allegiance of the Sinai organizations, especially due to ISIS defeats in Iraq and Syria and the disputes among these groups, some of which have returned to Al-Qaida. The Gaza organizations, however, arent part of this race, though ISIS Sinai tries to portray itself as the sponsor of the Salafi groups in Gaza.

In August, after a suicide bombing by one these groups on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, killing a Hamas man, Hamas launched a brutal campaign against the group. ISIS Sinai threatened that Hamas will pay a heavy price for ruining Salafi mosques in Gaza.

In September, after Hamas and Fatah signed their Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement, ISIS Sinai issued another threat, saying all agreements between Hamas and Egypts pagan intelligence, which sought to impose a closure on the caliphates soldiers, would fail. It also warned it would do things you havent seen before.

The Salafi groups in Gaza have refrained from confronting Hamas. The latter, trying to act like a responsible political regime, clashed with the Salafi groups when they started burning down heretical sites like cafes and video stores.

Hamas is unfazed by the Salafis religious jargon aimed at undermining its religious credibility. Hamas officials scorn the Salafi groups religious demeanor, especially because some of their leaders started out completely secular and still can hardly be seen as experts in Islamic law.

One example is Mumtaz Durmush, who began his military career as a counterintelligence agent in the Yasser Arafat era. Later he joined Hamas, only to leave it and join the popular committees that formed during the second intifada. He was responsible for the murder of Musa Arafat, Yasser Arafats cousin, and later set up Jaysh al-Islam, the largest and best-equipped Salafi organization.

This didnt stop him from taking part in the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and handing him over to Hamas. He also turned over 10 of his relatives, who were employed as Fatah security men, to Hamas.

In September 2015 Durmush announced that he was joining the Islamic State, but his main power lies in the large Durmush clan. His love for Islamic theology is like Ismail Haniyeh's love for the Zionist movement.

These Salafi organizations are no real threat to Hamas power and authority, but they can be irksome when they fire rockets into Israel or Egypt. Israel is wise to distinguish between Salafi groups' attacks and Islamic Jihad's attacks.

Holding Hamas responsible for thwarting these groups' acts is part of Israel's informal recognition of Hamas. But this wisdom doesn't always guide the defense minister or the right-wing ministers, whose tarring all the organizations, including Hamas, with the same brush is shortening the way to a wider attack on Gaza.