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Nov 16, 2012 | 18:50 GMT

In Gaza, an Opportunity for Hamas' Rivals

SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Ever since Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it has tried to showcase itself more as a legitimate political entity and less as a militant group. Hamas still maintains a militant wing with the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, but as it has attempted to focus on its political agenda, rival Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza have stepped up their militant activities.  

These groups are too weak to meaningfully threaten or undermine Hamas, but they will attempt to weaken Hamas by prolonging the current crisis and by strengthening their networks. Well aware of the threat posed by unchecked jihadist activity, Israel will continue to attack Hamas, specifically its militant wing, but only to the point of weakening the group. Israel knows that without Hamas, Gaza could descend into chaos, with several jihadist groups vying for supremacy. 

Hamas has tried to emulate the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and in the process the group has eased off its militant operations in favor of establishing its political credentials. But Hamas' attempts at legitimacy have galvanized more radical elements of the group into rebelling and forming new militant groups to take up arms against Israel.

The most notable of Hamas' rivals are the Salafi-jihadists. Composed of former Hamas members and former members of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, these individuals claim to have ties to al Qaeda. The Salafi-jihadists differ from Hamas in terms of ideology: Whereas Hamas is trying to build a style of governance akin to the Muslim Brotherhood's in Egypt, the Salafi-jihadists want to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Many of these groups are still operating today, most with a focus on attacking Israel. Others, such as Jaish al-Islam, have expanded their attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt against Israeli and Christian targets. Facilitating this expansion was the post-Mubarak security vacuum and the spread of Salafism from Egypt into Gaza. Most groups possess weapons, munitions, willing militant fighters, and some possess short-range rockets capable of striking Israel.

Hamas' Superiority

Despite this weaponry, there are several reasons these groups cannot surpass Hamas. First, there is a degree of competition among these groups. In some cases, rivalries stem from clan membership. Second, these groups are deliberately diffused. A large and unified group would be targeted by Hamas, which raided Jund Ansar Allah in 2009. Third, these groups have inferior access to resources. Hamas largely controls shipments passing in and out of Gaza and has more manpower and access to financial and military resources. Fourth, these groups are unable to prevent Hamas from entering their territory even though they enjoy varying levels of local support. Last, Hamas is more institutionalized than these groups. It boasts wider popular support in large part because it provides public services to the people of Gaza.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Hamas has been careful not to allow Salafi-jihadist groups to expand their influence. In some instances, Hamas counteracted the Salafist threat by incorporating Salafis into the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades. Provided that they defer to Hamas leadership and embrace the political program, Hamas can tolerate religious differences. More commonly, Hamas limits the strength of these groups by raiding their mosques and neighborhoods, detaining and arresting leaders, killing militant group members and confiscating their weapons. 

But despite these efforts, Hamas does not fully control attacks against Israel — a fact that enables Salafi-jihadist groups to launch their own attacks. These groups have demonstrated the capability to conduct cross-border attacks with small arms and explosives against Israel, in addition to the ability to launch short-range rockets, such as Grads and Qassams. Over the past few months, there has been a slight escalation in Salafi-jihadist operations, including several claimed rocket attacks into southern Israel. These claims have been corroborated by the Israelis, who have also blamed the group for some of the recent rocket attacks. 

Stability over Chaos

One of the groups that have been launching rockets into Israel is the Mujahideen Shura Council of Jerusalem, known by its acronym MSCJ. Two Salafi-jihadist groups — Jamaat Tawhid wa Jihad and Ansar al Sunnah — make up the MSCJ, which operates in Gaza and the Sinai. The group claimed responsibility for a Grad rocket attack on the Israeli city of Netivot on Sept. 9 (Hamas also ascribed blame to this group). In addition, the group clamed responsibility for firing three Qassam rockets at the city of Sderot on Aug. 26. Because the group has been among Gaza's most active in launching attacks against Israel, it has elicited a strong response from both Hamas and Israel. 

In fact, one of the group's founders and leaders, Hisham al-Saedini, also known as Abu al-Waleed al-Maqdisi, was killed in an Israeli airstrike Oct. 14. Previously, he had been imprisoned and interrogated by Hamas but was released in August 2012.  Moreover, Hamas arrested 30 MSCJ members in September in a bid to weaken the organization and deter further attacks.

Visit our Israel page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

Of course, Salafi-jihadist groups like MSCJ could be responsible for some of the recent rocket fire into Israel in the past few months. In fact, it serves their interests to do so. Such attacks can provoke a harsh Israeli response, which is normally directly first and foremost at Hamas. In turn, this weakens Hamas and creates opportunities for Salafi-jihadist groups to enjoy more autonomy, creating a larger sphere of operation. 

With Hamas embroiled in the current conflict with Israel, Salafi-jihadists can be expected to try to prolong the conflict by continuing attacks against Israel. A prolonged conflict would allow the Salafi-jihadists the opportunity to intensify and expand their operations geographically without the oversight of Hamas. These groups will likely attempt to solidify and grow their influence in their respective neighborhoods and networks, and they may even attempt more attacks in the Sinai Peninsula — efforts that are typically hampered by Hamas.

However, Israel is fully aware of the Salafi-jihadists' intentions. The Israeli military will attempt to weaken but not destroy Hamas in the ongoing conflict, as evidenced by its airstrikes against rocket locations and targets affiliated with the militant wing of Hamas, rather than the political wing. 

Israel knows that without Hamas, Gaza would likely spiral into chaos with several different militant fronts operating without restraint. Further destabilization would likely require Israel to reoccupy Gaza — a daunting task that would require more resources and manpower than dealing with a Hamas-controlled Gaza.

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