Hamas is not alone in Gaza

Hamas is not the only player in the Gaza Hornet’s Nest, and Israel would do well to remember this.

Whether Protective Edge will end at the negotiating table or be expanded into a ground operation, one thing needs remembering: Hamas is not the only player in the Gaza Hornet’s Nest • The crowded strip is filled with independent terror organizations, including those identified with Fatah, Islamic separatists and, of course, al-Qaeda and like-minded forces, who threaten Hamas itself • Get to know the people behind the rockets

אותם כבר הכרתם? חטיבות נאצר צלאח אל-דין מתאמנים ברפיח. צילום: עבד רחים ח'טיב, פלאש90
Have you met these guys? Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades train in Rafah. Photo: Abd Rahim Khatib, Flash90

As of this writing, Operation Protective Edge has not come to a conclusive end and the entire country is still being incessantly pounded with rockets. In the event a cease-fire is signed, Israel will need to consider a factor not often mentioned: a weakened Hamas will have trouble acting as the boss in Gaza, keeping the various smaller terrorist organizations in the Strip in check. A ground offensive, moreover, will have to contend with these radical organizations, some of which have bases in Sinai.

Today everyone knows of the two largest terror organizations sending rockets into Israel: Hamas and its military wing, the ‘Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades’ and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) headed by Dr. Ramadan Abdallah Shalah. But aside from these, there are myriad organizations involved in rocket firing and terrorist activities, some identified with Fatah and others with global Jihad, which Israel will have to take into consideration in any possible scenario.

When Fatah Does the Radical Islamic Thing

Contrary to popular perception, Hamas is not solely responsible for the rocket fire – Fatah is also participating in the bombardment. A number of armed groups affiliated with the ‘Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades’ have already announced involvement in the present rocket barrage. This is the same Fatah which Abu Mazen heads – the same Abu Mazen who formed a unity government with Hamas, called on the international community to intervene and restrain the dangerous Israeli escalation and at the same time condemned the rocket fire on Sderot. According to sources in Gaza, some of those hundreds of armed terrorists still receive a salary from the Palestinian Authority. The members of one of these organizations, Jaish al-Asifa (“The Army of the Storm”), even boasted that it fired 35 rockets towards Israel.

Another significant organization operating in Gaza is the ‘Popular Resistance Committees’. This organization, established by former Fatah member Jamal Abu Samhadana, attracted activists from a variety of organizations including Fatah, Hamas and others. The Committees draw their inspiration from Hezballah for their extreme Islamist outlook, seeing Jihad and “resistance” – terror and armed struggle – as the only means to destroy Israel and liberate all of Palestine from the “Demonic [i.e. Zionist] entity“. The organization, which works closely with Hamas and is sometimes even considered its “sub-contractor”, has been involved in dozens of terror attacks over the years, the most famous of which is the attack on Kerem Shalom and abduction of Gilad Shalit – to say nothing of the rockets, of course.

מפת הטרור של עזה. גרפיקה: יהודית זולוטרבסקי
The terror map in Gaza. Graphics: Yehudit Zolotversky

Black Banners in Action

In 2006, the Committees split in three: the central faction of the ‘Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades’; the ‘Popular Resistance Movement’ and a third faction known as the “Army of Islam“. While the first two factions work together with Hamas, the third is associated with the Salafist global Jihad movement, and has even declared its ideological affinity with al-Qaeda. Its relations with Hamas range from cooperation to violent conflict. This organization aims to fight against Jews and “Crusaders”, the Salafist term for Christians, and hit the headlines due to its involvement in the abduction of Gilad Shalit and British journalist Alan Johnston, the kidnapping and murder of Italian Vittorio Arrigoni, a pacifist and member of the anti-Israel ISM, and setting fire to the American school in Gaza.

The weakening of Egyptian control of the Sinai Peninsula, which escalated after the fall of the Mubarak regime, allowed for the growth and strengthening of the various Salafi groups previously active in the Gaza Strip to move into the Sinai. Their strength is estimated at between a few hundred and over ten thousand, if one believes the “Army of Islam”. Their relative difficulty in carrying out attacks against Israel has led to the creation of the “U Route” – the term for the route for transfer of activists and ammunition from the Strip through the tunnels underneath the Philadelphi Corridor, moving south to rendezvous with activists in the Sinai and conducting attacks across the Israel-Egypt border, including rocket fire at Eilat.

This method has run into difficulty ever since Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were removed from power and the Egyptian Army’s operations against Salafi organizations in the Sinai intensified, including the destruction of over a thousand of the tunnels underneath the Philadelphi Corridor. In spite of this, the organizations’ activity is still significant. Just a few days ago, the Egyptian Army reported that after a battle with armed men in Egyptian Rafah, the former captured 20 Grad missiles meant for Israeli and Egyptian targets.

The Global Jihad movement has made a substantial effort to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the aim of adopting the Palestinian cause and earning brownie points in Middle Eastern public opinion. A prominent example of this is ‘Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis‘, one of the most active Salafi organizations in the Gaza Strip. This organization was founded in the Sinai by former Hamas members, Bedouins and foreign nationals, and united seven Salafi factions. Since its founding, the organization has carried out many attacks against Egyptian security forces and strategic installations, including attacking the Egyptian gas pipeline, an attempt to assassinate the Egyptian Interior Minister and the murder of 16 Egyptian border guards during the Ramadan of 2012.

The organization, which also carried out a number of attacks against Israel, recently declared its loyalty to ISIL and its “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, taking responsibility for the abduction of the three hitchhikers – falsely, apparently – and for firing rockets into Israel. A few days ago, ‘Ansar’ uploaded a video (below) showing the group’s members firing a rocket form the Egyptian side of the border towards the Israeli town of Benei Netzarim.

More Radical than Hamas

The last few weeks have seen an increase in reports and posts on Jihadi forums of attempts to organize the various Salafi factions under the banner of ISIL to fight Israel from Gaza and eventually from the West Bank. The organization’s flags were seen waving at the funerals of two activists in the “Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades”, taken out by the Israeli Air Force after involvement in rocket fire. By the way, in spite of this, ISIL published an announcement putting the fight against the Shia as a higher priority than helping Palestinian factions in their fight against Israel, while Iran declared its continued support for (Sunni) Gazan terrorist organizations.

Indeed, in terms of the war taking place in our region, Gaza is no different than dozens of regions throughout the world: dozens of Salafi volunteers from Gaza left for Syria to fight the Assad regime and his allies in the past two years. Their return could greatly strengthen the Jihadist forces in the Strip.

Whether under the banner of al-Qaeda or ISIL or any other of a dozen factions supporting their ideology, these organizations openly boast of their showering Israel with rockets, even posting clips and notices of their deeds. These organizations are also known for criticizing Hamas for its “moderation”, its participation in the Palestinian “democratic game”, and its arrest and even torture of Salafists.

For its part, Hamas sees these organizations as a threat to its rule. In June, for instance, Hamas sent armed police forces to aggressively disperse a support rally for ISIL against the backdrop of its recent victories in Iraq. A spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry denied the very existence of an ISIL presence in Gaza, in response to a report of the arrest of 15 of its activists by the Egyptian Army when they infiltrated from Gaza into the Sinai.

Don’t Forget the Unknown Variable

The multiplicity and growth of extremist Jihadist and Salafi groups in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai needs to be taken into account by Israel – whether as an enemy to be dealt with in a ground invasion, or as a possible contender for power in the event Hamas is deposed. Although they are not behind the Lion’s share of rocket attacks, they are uncompromising and extreme, even compared to Hamas, and that desire may lead them to become an even greater threat than the latter if they grow too powerful.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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