Pro-ISIS Salafist Palestinians and peace prospects in the region: Drawback or Incentive?

Claire Akkaoui


Stantheman87 via Wikimedia Commons

Nearly sixty decades of protracted fighting have turned the Israeli-Palestinian dispute into one of myths shaping societies, one whose contours have been sketched by passion and blackened by resolve. The conflict is today one of competing narratives, mutually exclusive and contrasting in every aspect but their anchored perception of a zero-sum game. It is one of generations raised with the embedded belief that their mere existence relies on demeaning that of the other’s, with whom they believe to be sharing nothing but irreconcilable differences. True, there was a time when Arafat and Rabin were willing to move on the tractability spectrum. Yet, for all their symbolic value, it is difficult to see how the globally-applauded Oslo accords amounted to anything more than a short-lived optimistic sigh of relief. More than a decade later, fierce observers of the conflict now know better than to hold their breath. Recently, and just if the conflict was not deadlocked enough, the rise of pro-ISIS Salafist Palestinians in the Gaza strip seems to only be adding fuel to the fire. The extent to which the ceasefire will hold greatly depends on the steering of Israel’s foreign policy in the next few months.

The strengthening of the Islamic State’s almost-irreversible grip on parts of Syria and Iraq as well as the recent Gaza protests by various Salafist groups against Charlie Hebdo have made the presence of Gaza-based ISIS-bolstered factions impossible to overlook and their voices increasingly difficult to tame. Hamas officials might very well assert ISIS-sympathizer Jihadists are unlikely to pose a real threat to the alleged 35,000 trained fighters in the strip, the assumption that Hamas’ grip on Gaza remains unswerving is not grounded enough in evidence to prove skeptics wrong. Officially, the largest proportion of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants still put their weight behind Hamas. But off the books, deteriorating economic conditions, creeping unemployment rates and the downward spiral of living standards have been rupturing their support bubble. Playing on the vulnerability, sense of existential insecurity and religious feelings of the disillusioned youth, ISIS-emboldened Salafists claim today around 1,000 militants in Gaza alone, analysts believe.

On top of this, recent intensifying of Hamas crackdown on ISIS-sympathisers has only been backfiring. Wary of their geopolitical repercussions beyond Gaza and unable to afford another costly war, Hamas has recently distanced itself from the more tolerating stance it had usually adopted towards radical factions. In early May, Hamas had demolished a makeshift mosque used by Ansar Al-Bayt Al-Maqdis to praise ISIS. Two weeks ago, the assassination of senior Hamas commander Saber Siam and the killing of Salafist militant Younis Al-Hunnor, 27-year old father of three, have prompted violent reactions and revengeful messages, thus crippling any hopes for rapprochement in the near future. Today, to assert pro-ISIS Salafist Palestinians represent an empty threat would be no less credulous a theory than one that assumes an immediate cataclysmic danger. They might not be strong enough to overthrow Hamas’ rule, yet the theological alternative they offer makes them appealing enough an alternative to pose problems to Hamas.

Regardless, beyond immediate rule in the region, if the de facto internal threat facing Hamas could be seen as jeopardising external commitment to peace in the region, it is essentially because of Israel’s and subsequently the United States’ perception of the ISIS-Hamas duo. For all their divergences, Netanyahu has maintained their shared fanatical ambitions makes any difference between them essentially insignificant. That is not to say Hamas did not go to great lengths to repeatedly alert Israel of ISIS-linked rebels’ strategy, hoping to play on Israel’s sense of vulnerability to trigger an indiscriminate enough reaction to sow discord between the two and ultimately oust Hamas. Immediately after the June 3rd incident, as a senior Hamas official sent a message to Israel through Egypt, Hamas operatives have rushed to dissociate themselves from the rocket fires into Israel, pinning the blame on ISIS-linked Salafist groups.

Yet, even the ISIS-inspired radical factions claiming responsibility for the rocket firing did not change Israel’s stance towards Gaza’s leadership. The next day, as the IDF was retaliating, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly addressed the incident, essentially saying that regardless to whether the attackers are rebel factions, the end-outcome on Israel’s security forcibly makes them indifferent to the party responsible, further adding that the summer of 2014 should be held as an example of Israel’s resolve to respond to any harm to its citizens with even harsher retaliation. It would not be the first time tensions sparked by breakaway groups led to a bloody confrontation. Israel’s existential security overshadows internal competition and shapes any difference between ISIS and Hamas as less important than their similarities. Israeli officials treating ISIS and Hamas as essentially one same product in different packaging evidently bears repercussions on the direction of wider foreign policy stances towards the region.

A priori, the rise of rebellious ISIS-linked factions jeopardising Hamas rule in the Gaza strip could make the United States’ more reluctant to work towards concretising their formulated commitment to a two-state solution, as the mere idea of discussions with Islamic State sympathisers is constructed as a hardly justifiable compromise of ethics.  Yet at the time being, there seems to be more reasons to believe the enhanced geopolitical imminence will be a compelling incentive for the West to re-instil efforts into the peace process. The European Union is fearing to add any more problems and nearing the end of his second term, Barack Obama has very little to lose. On the contrary, whereas any instance of success will be cast to his credit, the burden of a potential failure is likely to fall on his successor’s shoulders.

Regardless, it is worth questioning whether the West’s intention and capabilities should even be a prime preoccupation. Now more than ever, perhaps the conflict is one for the Arab states and Israel -arguably the most concerned- to put their weight behind. Both are eager to contain common foe ISIS and the US-Iran nuclear talks heightening distrust in the US-Israel marriage might very well be an opportunity the Arab states should capitalise upon as Israeli officials could turn to Arab leaders to counter Iran.

In that, Israel holds the major cards. The rise of ISIS as Gaza contenders surely has the potential to bring Hamas and Israel closer together. But whether it will is a different question and depends on the Islamic State’s grip on Gaza and willingness to escalate its provocation, on Hamas’ sustained efforts to dissociate itself from rebellious Salafist factions and most importantly, on Israeli leadership’s ability to acknowledge the distinction and perhaps seek cooperation.

Albeit for different reasons, as we speak, both Hamas’ political and military leadership want the same thing Israel wants. The Salafist factions aside, no one in Gaza or in the international community can afford or is willing to go through another destructive war.  Time is no longer on anyone’s side. Long gone are the days when generations of leadership could afford to allow categorized ideological considerations alone to guide foreign policy decisions. Public speeches filled with firmly entrenched inflexibility are, at best, unproductive.

Rather than falling into ISIS factions’ trap of making mischief, Israeli officials need to realise that for all their differences, they are united with Hamas leadership, if only in the rebels’ perception. Israel and the major Arab states are already exchanging intelligence in the hope to counter ISIS and Iran. But anything less than a serious shift in foreign policy formulation is not nearly enough. Rather than collaboration been seen as compromise and nothing less than full-scale treason, it is about time the newly-elected right-wing Israeli cabinet realises that rather than blaming recent developments on the Gaza leadership and the inaction of Hamas, a better strategy would perhaps be to acknowledge that the hands of Hamas officials are tied. To not remain mere pawns in a game played by others, working with Hamas might for the time being be the least of two evils. Evidently, the rise of ISIS militants on the Gaza strip is not the only nail in the road; nor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict close to being the biggest casualty of the Islamic State. But if the near-future does not witness important foreign policy changes, Patrick Cockburn’s “child of war” might become a source of its continuity.

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