ISIS is vicious, brutal and barbaric, but it is no more dangerous than Hamas when it comes to real capabilities.
Everyone, including the Israeli government, is afraid of toppling Hamas for fear of someone “worse” coming in its place • But let’s be honest here: what could be “worse” than an organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction and which fires rockets and digs tunnels to murder civilians? When you look at the alternatives, there isn’t really anything worse • Yes, that includes ISIS
“If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse.”
Thus Lt. General Michael Flynn, outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in a professional assessment-cum-prophecy of doom which has caught hold of both the Israeli government and much of the foreign policy establishment. It’s pretty obvious that Flynn meant ISIS, the same head-chopping and mass-murdering terrorist state which has been getting so much press for the past few months.
Flynn is not alone, and his “devil you know” approach has been ever-present in Israel since the days of Oslo. Even before Prime Minister Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, people were warning that if we bring down Yasser Arafat, someone worse will replace him. But when buses filled with civilians are blowing up every other week – what could possibly be worse? Whether or not he’s a partner for permanent peace, Arafat’s replacement Abu Mazen has at least been consistently against violence and is certainly better than Arafat. By the way, we heard the same doomsday scenarios after we killed Sheikh Yassin and Rantisi, yet so far none of their replacements have been any more monstrous than their predecessors.
The terrorist beauty contest
So who’s on the short list to replace Hamas if they go down? Since the 2005 Disengagement, 8 (!) radical Islamist terrorist groups have arisen in Gaza. One of them, a Salafi group called “Jayish al-Islam”, even challenged Hamas rule in 2011. All of them, Fatah included, were crushed by Hamas. Almost all of these groups are ideologically close to al-Qaeda and are more extreme than Hamas in attitude.
But here we have to ask: what does it mean when we say “more extreme”? Are they more dangerous than Hamas? More murderous? Of course not. What could be more murderous than rockets and tunnels all aimed at murdering civilians?
These organizations are only more extreme than Hamas in one respect: while Hamas heads a political entity and is subject to political constraints, including cease fires with Israel, these factions do not see themselves bound by anything, and they espouse “resistance” to Israel under all conditions and at any time. Thus all that can be said is that they are more recalcitrant than Hamas.
The only significant organization of this kind which can threaten Hamas is Palestinian Islamic Jihad or PIJ and its military wing ‘Saraya al-Quds‘, which has participated in the fighting against the IDF. This organization is actually older than Hamas – it was founded in 1979 by Fathi Shqaqi in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. PIJ is subordinate to Iran, which provides it with most of its funding. Even though it’s a Sunni organization, PIJ espouses Sunni-Shiite unity, as in its view only then can the Muslim world harm Israel and the United States.
In light of the reality of Sunni-Shiite hostility in the region, PIJ’s subordination to Iran is not exactly a strong point if it wants to come up against Hamas. In the end, PIJ lacks both the numbers and the physical resources to pose a political challenge to Hamas. Even in the internal world of Jihadis, PIJ is considered a kind of “Reform” Islamist movement, so it’s hardly “worse” than Hamas.
ISIS isn’t on the horizon
What about ISIS, you ask? The simplistic scenarios assume that the violent organization will end up in the Strip and threaten Israel. But if we take a broader view, we find that this is unlikely to happen.
One of the characteristics of terrorist organizations is the ability to conduct terrorist attacks in a designated area which the terrorists are intimately familiar with. The advantage of Hamas, Hizballah and ISIS is that they are local players who understand their home turf. As such, it’s hard to conceive of an outside organization committing murder and terrorist attacks better than Hamas has been doing already for almost three decades.
Even if ISIS-affiliated cells are established in Gaza, they won’t be able to do a better job than Hamas is already doing. They certainly won’t be “worse”. Small, scattered units can’t conduct a large scale campaign requiring area-wide command and control – something Hamas has.
But the key thing preventing the development of foreign Jihadi cells is the lack of territorial contiguity allowing for the transfer of weapons and equipment from ISIS to the Gaza Strip. With Gaza caught in a vice between Israel and Egypt – and with Jordan also intervening – the idea of ISIS triumphantly doing one of their patented “Humvee conquests” of the strip without being destroyed is sheer fantasy.
The recent fighting in Gaza shows that Hamas has long since ceased to be a “terrorist organization” like the PLO of the 1970s. Hamas is a disciplined army with a high degree of motivation and proven fighting capabilities at the level of small-unit tactics. Its capabilities are a tactical threat to the state of Israel, threats which include the ability to neutralize Israel’s complete air supremacy through a tunnel network as well as bypass border obstacles with the indirect fire of mortars and rockets.
A “worse” organization than Hamas is only one which has greater capability to harm Israel, not how much more it hates our guts. But in order to do so, our hypothetical replacement terrorist organization would have to set up civil institutions and a military organization and chain of command which surpass that of Hamas. Even then, it would have to be given effective permission to do so by the IDF, irrespective of the bile it spews in the Mosques and on Terrorist TV.
English translation by Avi Woolf.