ISIS Allies Target Hamas and Energize Gaza Extremists – The New York Times
DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — One bomb hit a Hamas security checkpoint in northern Gaza. A few days later, another exploded in a trash can. Another blew up next to a Gaza City high-rise, and a small one targeted a chicken store owned by a Hamas intelligence official, Saber Siyam.
The four attacks in May — among at least a dozen this year, documented by a local human rights group — were aimed not at infidels, collaborators or criminals but at the ruling Islamist group, Hamas. The suspected perpetrators were Hamas’s emerging rivals: extremist Islamist groups that see Hamas as insufficiently pious, and that vow loyalty to the Islamic State.
While the extremists are unlikely to challenge Hamas’s firm grip on the Gaza Strip in the foreseeable future, they complicate matters by occasionally shooting rockets into Israel that could touch off a wider conflagration, if the rockets kill or maim Israeli citizens.
They could also seek to join forces with the far more dangerous, deadly branch of the Islamic State in neighboring Egypt’s Sinai Desert, possibly derailing the slowly improving relations between Hamas and Egyptian authorities that have recently led to the Egypt-Gaza border crossing’s being opened for brief moments for the first time in years.
“We will stay like a thorn in the throat of Hamas, and a thorn in the throat of Israel,” said Abu al-Ayna al-Ansari, the spokesman for the groups supporting the Islamic State, using a nom de guerre for security reasons.
Gaza has always had pockets of Islamists considered extreme even by the deeply conservative version of Islam practiced in much of the coastal enclave. Those extremists — known regionally as salafi-jihadis — have sparred with Hamas in the past, most notably in 2009 when a militant preacher declared an Islamic state from his mosque. More than 20 people were killed in the ensuing confrontation.
But as Islamic State militants consolidate control of areas they have conquered in Iraq and Syria, and conduct terrifying militant attacks elsewhere, they have energized Gaza’s new extremists, who are trying, in fitful starts, to harass and harm their Hamas rulers.
While it is hard to gauge their numbers, the latest round of clashes is a sign of the extremists’ growing potency. Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, estimates that their ranks have swelled from several hundred a few years ago to a few thousand today among Gaza’s 1.8 million residents.
Mr. Ansari, the spokesman, said the militants had formed a decision-making council for their group, Supporters of the Islamic State, and created a militant wing, the Battalion of Sheikh Omar Hadid.
The emergence of the extremist groups also underscores how Hamas is struggling to govern amid a harsh financial crisis and tight border restrictions.
The extremists themselves point to what they say is God’s displeasure in Hamas, which has faced choking restrictions by Israel and Egypt, causing soaring unemployment and collapsing trade. Construction in areas pounded in last summer’s war continues at a snail’s pace.
Whether imposed by God or unfriendly neighbors, the wretched conditions create an ideal environment for the extremist groups. “The situation is quite grim, so radical ideologies could have more sway than what they have in the past,” said Benedetta Berti, a fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
To the extremists, the poverty, suffering and hopelessness in Hamas-led Gaza stands in sharp contrast to the Islamic State’s sweep through Syria and Iraq, which appears divinely victorious.
“When my brother went to Syria, he said: ‘Forget Gaza, this is the real world. I am in a world you cannot imagine,’ ” one young man said dreamily of his brother, who was recently killed fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Syria. Like most salafi-jihadis and their families, he requested anonymity, fearing trouble with the Hamas authorities.
Hamas has so far sought to attribute its troubles to Palestinian rivals in the Fatah party, led by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, even as it conducts sweeping crackdowns.
Hamas officials have also harassed employees of international news outlets for reporting on the extremists. Their fear is that their rivals — Israel and the Palestinian Authority — will use the news accounts to lump them together with the salafi-jihadis, justifying attacks against Hamas or the Gaza Strip.
The new extremists do not have official connections to ISIS, but stay in contact with its leadership through a Gaza resident who joined the group, Rasem Abu Jazar. ISIS sends money to the Gaza families of men fighting for the group, and to fund the journey for other fighters to leave the territory.
Mr. Ansari said the Gaza extremists did not have formal connections to ISIS in Sinai, although they would “welcome them.”
The latest round of violence began in April after Hamas detained a prominent extremist, Adnan Mayit. His followers responded by firing rockets at Israelis, and security officials detained dozens more; some, his followers say, were tortured. Then Hamas security officers killed one of the extremists’ leaders, Younis Hounor, 27.
Among those recently detained by Hamas was a 19-year-old man who was punched, beaten on the feet and made to jump on a wet floor to increase the pain.
The loyalties of the man’s family were clear: a crude ISIS slogan was daubed on their battered truck, and another was pasted on the inside of their home’s front door in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza.
Hamas has sought to soothe tensions by releasing most of those it has swept up in arrests, even if they are later rearrested. That includes Mr. Mayit, whose arrest touched off the bombing campaign, though he remains effectively under house arrest.
Officials allowed furloughs for others, including Mahmoud al-Salfiti, sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of an Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, in 2011. Mr. Salfiti subsequently fled detention, and local news media reported he left Gaza for Syria to fight with ISIS.
Mr. Arrigoni was initially kidnapped by extremists who wanted to swap him for some of their own detainees.
This time around, Mr. Ansari, the militant spokesman, said they did not intend to kidnap foreigners. “No, no, no,” he said. “We can’t even fight Hamas to be kidnapping foreigners.”
But he warned that “torture has a price,” and said they would fight Hamas “with explosions, opening fire, and targeting chief targets” if the detentions did not end.
In a beige home on a narrow alley in the northern Gaza Strip, the father of a 25-year-old detained man clutched worry beads; the man’s mother slouched on a couch and their oldest son curled up on a chair. They had not heard from their detained son in weeks.
He was arrested after he raged against Hamas on Facebook about the treatment of imprisoned salafi-jihadis.
After he was released after 13 day in May, his back, knees and feet were swollen.
He was quickly ordered back into detention, and the family has not heard from him since. His youngest siblings wanted to stage a protest, but were stopped by their oldest brother.
“You learn how to behave in a dictatorship: what you learn is to stop talking,” said the brother.
But he feared his brother had become more extreme, and anti-Hamas in detention.
“He used to be upset when he saw what was happening to the others,” he said. “Now it is happening to him. Will that make him change his mind? No, it has deepened his ideas.”