Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Hamas’s Islamist Foes

By Beverley Milton-Edwards
Sunday, May 25, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The United States rightly regards the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Palestinian organization Hamas as a terrorist group, but Hamas is also the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. There it juggles the responsibilities of governing Gaza and the associated need to mollify Israel with its self-image as an Islamic “resistance” movement. Making this difficult act even harder, Hamas faces a terrorism problem of its own. Gaza is home to a range of groups that see Hamas as too accommodating toward Israel and too lenient when it comes to imposing Islamic law at home. Beverley Milton-Edwards, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and renowned expert on Hamas, assesses these Islamist rivals and the risks for Hamas of being too confrontational or too passive in dealing with them.

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Hamas is no stranger to having enemies—but none may prove as potent as its Islamist foes. Yet identifying an Islamist foe from a friend is proving to be tricky work these days. Increasingly, Hamas-controlled Gaza is awash with an array of radical Islamist contenders. Falling within an ideological spectrum from takfiri jihadists to traditional Salafists, these Islamists represent a security challenge for the region and for Hamas in Gaza. (The spectrum referred to encompasses extreme Islamists with ideological ties to strict interpretations of Islam. Traditional Salafists revere order and authority in Islam and frequently eschew violence. However, like the takfiri jihadists, they abhor what they consider inauthentic expressions of Islam and reject the influence of other ideologies on Islam. Takfiri jihadists believe Muslim society has become infidel, are vehemently anti-Western, and employ violence to achieve their goals.) In Hamas’s recent strategic calculations, some of these Islamists must be suppressed and opposed, while others should be nurtured and accommodated as Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamists regroup from blows by the Egyptian and Israeli governments and contend with counter-offensive actions against their new foes.

Radical Islamist contenders have always been based in the Gaza Strip, but the ones with an ideology closer to Al Qaeda have gained prominence since 2006. Radical contenders in the past included traditional Salafists and vanguardist jihadists such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  The context in which the new groups have arisen reflects the ongoing power struggle within the Palestinian scene, and incorporates the debilitating state of division that emerged between Fatah and Hamas after January 2006 (and has only recently been ameliorated by rapprochement). The new Salafi-jihadists emerged—cell-like and small in number, armed, and connected to powerful local clan and family networks—amidst the power and lawlessness of Gaza during this period.

Milton-Edwards photoThe Salafi-jihadists and takfiris include groups such as Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of God’s Compassion), Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jaysh Tawheed wa Jihad (Army of Unity and Jihad), and Jund Allah (God’s Soldiers). More recently, they are also alleged to incorporate Syrian-inspired takfiri elements and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Both Hamas and Israel have referred to these groups collectively as Jaljalat (Rolling Thunder). The groups are amorphous, dynamic, and can disappear as quickly as they rise up. The relative power of such groups depends on their ability to access other local networks such as armed clans and families as well as external patronage.

Such groups are allegedly responsible for organizing and conducting attacks against Israel, including rocket attacks, attempted kidnappings and assassinations, and hostage-taking of foreigners, including journalists, non-governmental agency (NGO) workers, and activists. They have struck local businesses and individuals in Gaza they consider to be engaged in immoral or apostate activities, including Internet cafe owners, video shops, mixed-gender cafes, pharmacies where sex-enhancing drugs such as Viagra are alleged to be for sale, and men working in women’s hair salons. The leaders of such groups publicly laud Al Qaeda and predict that they are opening a new bridgehead in the global jihad in Gaza. They live a shadowy life, hiding not only from Israel’s counterterrorist units but also from Hamas’s own formidable security and intelligence forces within the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’s Islamist opponents are multi-faceted in terms of ideology, operational reach, and threat. They undermine Hamas’s claim that it is the legitimate Islamist representative of the Palestinians and attempt to monopolize power and governance according to their own Islamist agenda. Unlike the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which Hamas could outbid in terms of Islamic symbolism, these new groups claim to be the fundamentalist and true Islamist alternative. The ideology that these groups claim to represent has challenged the legitimacy of Hamas in terms of the wider Islamist project and its political and religious orientation.

These groups have a long list of grievances against the Hamas authorities governing in Gaza, particularly with respect to what they see as their right to pursue armed resistance (jihad) against Israel and the imprisonment by Hamas of some of their leaders. Their concerns lie with the direction of the resistance, which Hamas has altered; the issue of a continuing jihad; recognition of Israel; Palestinian internal reconciliation issues; democracy and elections; Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring; and the changed power balances in the wider Middle East region. Like the leadership of Al Qaeda, they also complain that Hamas has failed to implement a true Islamic state and has instead succumbed to the lure of Western democratic governance in Gaza as the limit of its ambition.

Their discontent, when tied to complaints about poverty and lack of political progress in the conflict with Israel, finds growing support—not only among defectors from Hamas’s armed wing, but also among the many young Gazans who chafe at Hamas’s institutionalization and the opportunities for clientelism that have arisen.

Though it has been referred to by some as “the Palestinian version of Al Qaeda,” Hamas firmly rejects the Al Qaeda moniker. Hamas continues to deny all speculation of an Al Qaeda presence in Gaza and disavows attacks on Israel that are launched from Gaza (which is supposed to be under its control). In fact, Hamas has demonstrated an intrinsic interest in stopping Al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the Gaza Strip, and its efforts seem to have proven successful so far. Hamas has brutally repressed local manifestations of Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-inspired elements, as it did in 2009 in Rafah; has gone on record to denounce and refute edicts against it issued by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; and has sought to repress manifestations of radical Islamism in its midst, including policing local Islamist elements that embrace the agenda, goals, or aspirations of the Al Qaeda network.

The challenge for Hamas is how to manage its other Islamist foes while at the same time identifying its radical Islamist friends, including Muslim Brotherhood elements from Egypt. Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza in the 1980s, and the Egyptian government has alleged that Hamas played a part in the takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring it part of the “terrorist” network threatening the state. Egypt has already banned Hamas, and Saudi Arabia appears to be heading that way, too. As a result, Hamas must now engage in complex strategic reasoning in order to ensure its long-term survival and hedge its political bets on the vagaries of power in the wake of the new authoritarian front against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Indeed, Hamas’s very survival in Gaza now depends on the acquiescence of the al-Sisi regime in Cairo, and his demands have led Hamas back into a reconciliation agreement with Fatah. Hamas needs Egypt to open its borders and help relieve the besieged population of Gaza from humanitarian and economic crisis. General al-Sisi can play a large part, then, in determining the survival of the movement.

Hamas thus crushes some Islamist elements and engages in alleged cooperation with others such as the pro-Muslim Brotherhood group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The drawback for Hamas in cooperating with such groups is that these groups are focused on Cairo, not Gaza or Tel Aviv. And the potency of Hamas’s Islamist opponents lies in the overlap between their ideological perspectives and the conditions under which ordinary Gazans live. It may be within the ideology of global jihadism that a constructed sense of Palestinian empowerment will be generated at a time when other Palestinian political perspectives point to emasculation. Jihadist ideas find tangible expression in attacks on Israel and threats against the Hamas government for its poor performance in transforming the political system to the dictates of Islam.

The risk for Hamas, in terms of pulling its horns in regionally, distancing itself from its Islamist allies, and returning to the fold of Palestinian national unity according to the Egyptian-directed and Fatah-inspired diktat, is that in doing so it gives its Islamist rivals more ammunition to inspire outrage and declare it infidel. Hamas is already seen by many as Israel’s police force against these Islamist groups, negotiating and policing the ceasefire that protects the Jewish state. On the other hand, if Hamas were to “permit” such elements to target Israel, then retaliation by Israel would be inevitable—and at a time when Hamas has inadequate resources and few allies to call on for support.

Although the challenge Hamas faces from its Islamist foes at present is limited, it is unlikely that this Islamist opposition will wither away, and in the current regional climate, the criticism they lay at Hamas’s feet may be ignored at their peril. As with neighboring North Sinai, Gaza could eventually succumb to proliferating takfiri jihadist forces, further undermining the delicate security balance currently prevailing in that part of the Middle East region.

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Beverley Milton-Edwards is a professor of politics in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. Her latest book The Muslim Brotherhood: The Arab Spring and its Future Face will be published by Routledge in 2014.