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Gaza's Instability Has Created a Fertile Breeding Ground for the Islamic State

VICE News traveled to the Gaza Strip, where shadowy groups supportive of Islamic State are gaining support, blowing up cars, and firing rockets into Israel.

by Harriet Salem
Jul 30 2015, 3:15pm

Foto di Hassan Mahmoud/AP

The blasts, six in quick succession, came a little after 6am. In Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan district windows shattered, books tumbled from shelves, and picture frames juddered askew. Across the city, residents ran to their windows. Rising high in the dawn sky were six plumes of ominous black smoke.

Ismail Mohamed, 26, was napping after visiting the mosque for morning prayers when the thunderous booms on July 19 shook him from his sleep. "I thought the war with Israel had started again," he told VICE News.

"I rushed outside with the neighbors, there were fire trucks in the street. I could see a car had exploded. Then I saw the graffiti and I understood."

Across the road from the wreckage, daubed in fresh bold paint, was the insignia of the so-called Islamic State group (IS). The attack targeted six cars belonging to officials from the military wing of Hamas — the rulers of the Gaza Strip — and their allies, Islamic Jihad.

Smoke rises from three places in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighborhood on July 19. Unknown assailants blew up six cars belonging to fighters in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. Photo by Wesam Nasar/EPA

Armed masked fighters from the Islamic Jihad movement guard the surrounding of a destroyed car following the attacks. Photo by Wesam Nasar/EPA

The black and white flag of IS was first spotted in Gaza during a demonstration against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the Paris terror attacks that killed 17 in January. Burning the French tricolor, the crowd jeered and chanted anti-Western slogans.

"Looking back that was the turning point, the beginning of what we see now," Mokhaimer Abu Sada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, told VICE News. "It was the largest Salafi protest in years, hundreds of them turned out."

The situation escalated rapidly. In the months that followed the rally a series of bombings and assassination attempts rocked Gaza. Targets included the French culture center and government buildings.

A group calling itself the "Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem" claimed responsibility for mortaring a Hamas training camp and a car bomb that killed a senior Hamas official.

In early June a group operating under the name of the "Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade," a hat-tip to a high-ranking commander in the Iraqi insurgency, boasted it had carried out the first cross-border rocket attack into Israel by a pro-IS group.

Related: This Struggling Gaza Zoo Has Been Forced to Sell Off Ostrich Eggs and Lion Cubs

In a video statement released shortly after this attack, the Shekih Omar Hadid Brigade called on the "apostate" Hamas government to release the Salafi prisoners it was holding and warned of further attacks on Israel.

This is not the first time Hamas and radical Salafists — who see the strip's Islamist leaders as too moderate and their stance on Israel as too soft — have gone head-to-head.

In 2009 a radical al Qaeda aligned group called "Warriors of God" declared its own "Islamic Emirate" in Rafah, a southern Gaza city hugging the Egyptian border. After a lengthy gun battle Hamas fighters managed to dislodge the militants from the mosque where they were holed up, killing at least a dozen jihadists in the process — a clear message to anyone with similar ideas.

The hardliners new tactic has proved much harder to stymie, however. "In direct military confrontation with Hamas the Salafists know they'll be easily crushed," Professor Sada told VICE News. "So this time they're avoiding the mistake of 2009 and playing a game of cat and mouse, avoiding direct confrontations with Hamas."

"The rocket fire [into Israel] achieves their goal, destabilizing the security situation, in two ways," he continued. "Firstly, they are provoking Israel into a response. Secondly, they want to embarrass Hamas... to show they are not in control of the situation here."

"It's a strange situation," Sada added. "I do not think you can say Israel and Hamas will become friends, this will never happen, but now they are facing a common enemy."

'I do not think you can say Israel and Hamas will become friends, this will never happen, but now they are facing a common enemy'

Across the 223-square-mile strip pop-up roadblocks have been established as the authorities try to track down militants. At night Hamas security officials shine flashlights through vehicles' windows, while drivers that look suspicious have their documents checked and their cars searched.

The increased police presence on the streets has been accompanied by a crackdown on hardliners. Last month a makeshift mosque used as a pulpit by a radical imam was razed to the ground, and in recent weeks dozens of Salafists have been arrested in raids up and down Gaza.

Palestinian Hamas police officers monitor the road as they set up a nightly checkpoint in Gaza City in May. Photo by Khalil Hamra/AP

Yet despite the high-profile step-up in security the authorities are keen to play down the influence of IS sympathizers in the strip to outsiders, particularly journalists.

"Gaza is safe… You can walk anywhere, even at 3am in the morning, no problem," Iyad al-Buzum, a spokesman for Hamas' Interior Minister assures VICE News jabbing his finger down on a garish violet desk — a legacy from the woman's rights organization that previously used the office.

"People say there is the Islamic State in Gaza, but there is not," Buzum continued. "It exists only on social media, it's just a few individuals... people trying to destabilize the situation, bragging on Facebook and Twitter."

But just hours after Buzum declared Gaza "100 percent safe" another rocket was launched into Israel, bringing the total now fired to five in nearly as many weeks.

There is a lot at stake. Despite their longstanding hostility Israel and Hamas are fatigued from three wars in seven years — the most recent and deadly just last summer — and reportedly engaged in secretive negotiations to secure a long-term truce, even as the Salafist rocket fire threatens to goad them back into war.

The controversial talks being conducted via European and Gulf channels are unlikely to bring a permanent resolution to the conflict, but may at least achieve a more sustainable status quo. Israel is said to be tabling a further relaxation on import restrictions and a much-cosseted floating port off the Gazan coast in exchange for guarantee of quiet from the strip.

Related: In Photos: Gaza One Year On, Life Amid the Ruins

For Hamas a deal would go a long way in alleviating its dire financial situation. Unemployment in the strip is the highest in the world at 43 percent and none of the 18,000 homes destroyed during the last war have yet been rebuilt.

However, already tenuous talks are even less likely to have real mileage if Israel sees that the strip's rulers are unable to uphold what would be their end of the deal — namely a hiatus in rocket fire.

The negotiations also pose a catch-22 for Hamas. While a deal may help alleviate some of Gazans' economic hardships, to be seen negotiating with Israel, a sworn enemy, risks galvanizing support for their opponents inside the strip.

Abu Hafs al Maqdisi, the leader of the Jaish al Ummah "Army of Believers" a Salafi militant group that fought side-by-side with Hamas during last summer's war has been arrested by the authorities five times in the last two years, and one of his deputies is currently wanted for questioning. Like many of the armed groups operating in the strip, the loyalty of his fighters is contingent on having shared interests.

Meeting with VICE News in a private apartment, away from the prying eyes of Hamas security officials, al Maqdisi averted his gaze downward, spoke quietly, and chose his words carefully: "Now is not the right time for a war with Israel, but the time is coming and we will be ready. From our point of view, we, unlike Hamas, signed no agreement with Israel, so there is and will not be a ceasefire."

"We are training and preparing for another war… for now we are in agreement [with Hamas]… but we do not act on their orders either and when the time is right we will fight," he told VICE News.

'We are training and preparing for another war… for now we are in agreement with Hamas… but we do not act on their orders either'

While Maqdisi rejects the ideology of the Islamic State, noting that the group has made "mistakes" in Syria and Iraq, his Army of Believers has a "shared ideology" with al Qaeda and has criticized Hamas for not implementing sharia law in the strip. In the past the group has also expressed willingness to work with other Sunni hardliners in the region.

It's not just the Salafi groups that may turncoat on Hamas. Among the members of the shadowy groups supportive of IS, there are disillusioned defected fighters from its own rank-and-file.

Among them was Younis al Hunnor. Shot dead in a June police raid, 27-year-old Hunnor — a longtime member of Hamas' military wing al Qassam, who turned to radical Salafism around two years ago — was killed during "an intense exchange of fire" after security forces claimed he attempted to set of a bomb vest as they tried to detain him.

In Sheikh Radwan "Wanted" posters stuck up around the neighborhood show six mug shots of the suspected car bombers — locals say they recognize several as former al Qassam members.

An armed masked fighter from the Islamic Jihad movement guards the surrounding of a destroyed car following the explosions in Sheikh Radwan on July 19. Photo by Wesam Nasar/EPA

Israel too finds itself in a quandary. Although it is actively negotiating truce terms with Hamas, the military has a longstanding policy of holding the strip's rulers accountable for any rockets launched from Gaza.

"[Even if] rocket fire into Israel was carried out by rogue groups... aiming to challenge Hamas' regime, we hold Hamas responsible for everything that happens in Gaza," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon retorted after a recent attack. "If we must we will strike back harder."

Yet despite the fiery rhetoric the army's response has, so far, been muted. In a so-called "shooting tin cans" approach, retaliatory strikes against Hamas bases have come several hours later, giving the strip's rulers ample time to evacuate their personnel.

In a June briefing on the Gaza border, Major General Shlomo Turgeman, warned that the removal of Hamas would result in "chaos" and that Israel would not go to war over a "few rockets exploding in open areas."

"At the moment there is no alternative to Hamas. There is no one else who can hold things together," he told officials and reporters. "In my opinion we need as many quiet periods as possible."

Related: Hamas Killed and Tortured Palestinians in Gaza Conflict, Report Claims

So far no casualties have been incurred on either side, but the exchange could quickly spiral out of control if a Salafist rocket hits its target. Despite the Israeli army's resistance to escalation, the public pressure on politicians, many more hawkish than their military counterparts, is mounting with every missile fired. A death on the Israeli side could change the calculus drastically.

"Whoever is willing to accept the drizzle will in the end find himself in downpour," railed Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu a far-right party and the third largest bloc in opposition following the fourth attack in as many weeks. "We must not accept this situation. A government willing to accept this... has no right to exist."

If the waters weren't already muddied enough, pressure on Hamas is also mounting on another front — Gaza's increasingly unstable border with Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula.

A Ramadan attack by Wilayat Sinai — a local IS affiliate — that killed dozens of Egyptian military personnel has been squarely landed at the door of strip's rulers by both Cairo and Jerusalem, both of which accuse Hamas of providing the peninsula's jihadis with medical aid, shelter, and weaponry in exchange for access to smuggling tunnels stretching into Egypt's eastern deserts.

"There is cooperation between them [Hamas and Wilayat Sinai] in the realm of weapons smuggling and terrorist attacks. The Egyptians know this, and the Saudis," Israel's intelligence minister Israel Katz told reporters in the wake of the attacks. "At the same time within Gaza, ISIS [another acronym for IS] have been flouting Hamas. But they have common cause against the Jews, in Israel or abroad," Katz added.

Whether true or not, a further deterioration in relations between Hamas and the military-backed government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will only further damage Gaza's economy.

Egypt is currently clearing a 1.2-mile buffer zone along its eastern border with the strip and so far this year Gaza's Rafah border with the Sinai Peninsula — a much-needed lifeline to the outside world — has only been open a handful of days; a situation that now looks unlikely to improve.

'Neither Israel or Hamas want another war, but war won't always wait for politicians' permission.'

"The situation in Gaza is a very bleak at the moment... [it's] a highly fertile ground for extremist groups," Charlie Winters, a researcher of Islamic jihad movements at the Quilliam Foundation, told VICE News. 

"Recruiters need grievances to play on... and in Gaza there are plenty... the Islamic State has also proven very successful in attracting fighters that are already affiliates of other groups, such as al Qaeda and Hamas, to their cause.

"Gaza provides these opportunities because armed groups are already well-established there. It's a ready-made situation," Winters added.

While IS leaders in the Levant have not declared Palestine as an official province of the caliphate as they have done in the Sinai — a sign there is currently no formal affiliation with its Gaza offshoot — there are growing indications the extremist group is looking to strengthen their ties with the strip.

In July the militant group released a video message from Syria addressed to the "tyrants of Hamas." In the clip a Palestinian jihadist appears flanked by two gunmen and calls on Gazans to join the so-called caliphate and threatens to turn the strip into a "river of blood."

In his 15th floor office overlooking Gaza City, Ahmed Yousef, a senior official in Hamas and advisor to the strip's prime minister, admits the situation in Gaza is becoming increasingly "complex" and "toxic."

"One year on from the [last] war and the people are still suffering badly here. People are very poor, very frustrated, very disappointed," Yousef told VICE News. "Neither Israel or Hamas want another war, but war won't always wait for politicians' permission."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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