Last week, Gaza City, which is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist terror group, Hamas, experienced explosions at two Hamas police checkpoints that killed three policemen. If one rationally suspected that it was the work of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one would be proven wrong. In fact, it was perpetrated by the suicide bombers of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. The group is an affiliate of the Islamic State or ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The Hamas authorities in Gaza not only charged the fellow jihadist group of perpetrating the attacks but began mass arrests of the Islamic State supporters, as well as other Salafist groups throughout the Gaza Strip. And yet, it is not the first time the Islamic State Sinai branch and Hamas have clashed.
Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, known as the “blind sheik,” who proudly declared at the onset of the Second Intifada, that “Hamas leaders wish to be martyrs and are not scared of death.” This implies that Hamas operatives wish for death in a suicide bombing is stronger than the Israelis will for life. It seems that now other extremist jihadists, whether belonging to ISIS or its imitators, have a stronger motivation to be martyrs and join ‘72 black-eyed virgins in paradise,’ than do the Hamas terrorists.
But why are those two Islamist terrorist groups ready to cut each other’s throat? The answer could be found in their perspectives. Although Hamas has a murderous Islamist ideology, its stated mission is to destroy the Jewish state and form an Islamic state in its place. Its singular focus on Palestine is not acceptable to ISIS and its affiliates. The Islamic State or ISIS has a much wider perspective. It aims to create an Islamic Caliphate, imposing Sharia Law worldwide, and most certainly in the wider Middle East region. ISIS views Hamas and its supporters as “apostates.” The two terrorist groups do, however, share in the quest to liquidate the Jewish state.
ISIS considered Hamas’ participation in democratic elections in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank as un-Islamic. To them, Hamas put man-made law above God’s law. Furthermore, the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula is at war with Egypt, and Hamas’ warmer relations with the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was seen by them as a betrayal. Disagreement and violence, however, were not always the case between the two terrorist groups. Until recent years, Hamas’ military wing helped the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula become an effective fighting force against the Egyptian regime. Hamas trained the Islamic State fighters in the Sinai and provided their wounded with medical services. They cooperated in terrorist attacks and arms smuggling. The improved relations between Hamas and Egypt seems to have ended this cooperation.
As an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Hamas considered the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as illegitimate and as an enemy, following the removal of the former MB oriented President Mohammad Morsi. Al-Sisi’s government saw Hamas as terroristic, and its cooperation with elements of the Islamic State made it a legitimate target for a blockade.
A June 30, 2015 headline in The Guardian read, “Islamic State threatens to topple Hamas in the Gaza Strip in a video statement.” The video emanating from ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, was a challenge to Hamas over its (Hamas’) crackdown on jihadists who opposed its truce with Israel and reconciliation with the supposedly pro-Western Palestinian Fatah party, which rules the West Bank. ISIS accused Hamas of being “insufficiently stringent” about religious enforcement. It also boasted that it is at war with Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
A video released by the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula in January 2018, called for attacks on Hamas members and institutions. The video accused Hamas of betraying the Palestinians by imprisoning its fighters and other jihadists in Gaza. ISIS also charged Hamas with failing to stop the U.S. from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as accepting support from Iran.
How does the Hamas leadership view the Islamic State video? According to the New York Times (January 10, 2018), a senior Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, described the video as a “Zionist production.” Another Hamas senior official, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said that the Islamic State Sinai branch “does not want there to be weapons in Hamas hands to resist the Israeli occupation.” Of course, in their rhetorical flourishes, these Hamas officials forgot that Israel has not had a presence in the Gaza Strip since 2005.
That same 22-minute video has shown Hamza al-Zamli, a former Hamas fighter who defected to the Islamic State, instructing another former Hamas fighter, Mohammad al-Dajani, who similarly defected, to execute a fellow Islamic State fighter named Musa Abu Zamat, with a bullet to the back of his head. He was accused of smuggling weapons to the apostate of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, a reference to Hamas’ military wing.
In the Sinai insurgency against the Egyptian government of Al-Sisi, hundreds of Egyptian soldiers, police officers, and civilians have been killed in fighting the Islamic State in the Sinai. Now the terrorist group has turned its attention to Hamas. In August 2017, a member of the Islamic State in the Sinai, carried out the first suicide bombing against Hamas forces in Gaza, killing a Hamas border guard. Last week, Hamas’ death toll grew higher.
As mentioned earlier, the two terrorist groups may differ on the immediate focus of their terror campaigns, with Hamas targeting Israel, and the Islamic State the wider region. But they are similar in that they are extensions of radical Islamic global movements: Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood while the Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Both terrorist organizations view Jihad and suicide attacks as their primary tools for obtaining their goals. Similarly, both organizations have seized territory by force: Hamas took Gaza in a coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007, and the Islamic State has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula is challenging Hamas in several ways. It questions its loyalty to Sunni-Muslim fundamentalism, in that it has allowed Iran and Shiitism to move into Gaza. It berates the Hamas leadership for concluding a truce with Israel, and it considers Hamas’ warming relations with Egypt a betrayal. Hamas, on its part, views the Salafi jihadists as meddling in its domestic activities without its approval.
These Salafi terrorists have embarrassed Hamas by refusing to obey its truce with Israel. Hamas is also seeking to portray itself to western audiences as being non-jihadi. Another worry for Hamas is that Gaza Palestinian Salafists are joining the ranks of the Islamic State in the Sinai.
The Egyptian government aims to end the Sinai insurgency. It wants the Hamas rulers of Gaza to crack down on the insurgents in its midst and stop the flow of jihadists to the Sinai. The Hamas leaders want Egypt to end its blockade and recognize Hamas as the legitimate ruler of Gaza. In the meantime, according to an Israel Defense magazine headline (August 8, 2016) “Iran Sells Weapons to ISIS Sinai Branch,” it guarantees the continued spread of violence in the area.
There is no “love lost” between the two Islamist terrorist groups. And it appears that the bloodletting is unlikely to end soon, due to their contrasting interests.