- Last week, Israel killed Ahmed Jamil al-Nemnem, a leading member of the Al Qaeda linked Jaish al-Islam group, in a targeted assassination in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas Gaza entity represents a challenge to efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to reach a two-state agreement. Because of its accommodating attitude to Salafi-jihadi militants, Gaza today also constitutes a direct threat to internal stability in Egypt and to Western interests.
- The most immediate victims of this situation are the people of Gaza themselves, both because of the repressive nature of Hamas rule, and because of the impact of restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt to prevent Hamas solidifying its position and rearming.
- Suitable options for removing Hamas rule and restoring that of the Palestinian Authority are lacking. Israeli and Egyptian policy currently, therefore, represents an uneasy containment of the Hamas-ruled Gaza entity.
Last week, Israel killed Ahmed Jamil al-Nemnem, a leading member of the Al Qaeda linked Jaish al-Islam group, in a targeted assassination in the Gaza Strip. According to reports, Nemnem had been involved in terror attacks on Israeli and US targets in Sinai, and was in the process of planning an additional attack in this area when he was killed. This incident highlights the threat emanating from Gaza not only on the part of Hamas, but from global Jihadi groups which threaten Western interests in the region.
Despite sporadic attempts at reconciliation, the split in the Palestinian national movement shows little sign of being reversed. Within Gaza, Hamas has established a regime in which opposition is suppressed. The Hamas enclave is therefore likely to be a feature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute for the foreseeable future. The Hamas-Gaza entity, closely linked to Iran, represents a challenge to efforts to revive the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Because of its harbouring of Salafi-Jihadi militants, Gaza also represents a direct threat to internal stability in Egypt, and potentially to wider Western interests.
Since Operation Cast Lead, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Israel has largely subsided. As a result, the most immediate victims of the situation are the people of Gaza themselves. This is both because of the repressive nature of Hamas rule, where many basic freedoms are denied, and because of the impact of restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt to contain Hamas, and limit its extensive efforts to rearm. This analysis look at how Hamas is maintaining its rule in Gaza, Hamas’s relationship with Salafi-Jihadi groups in Gaza, and the ongoing debate over how to alleviate the humanitarian plight in the Strip without compromising security interests.
The internal situation in Gaza
Since the Hamas coup of 2007, the movement has substantially expanded its security forces as the key tool for maintaining its rule. At the time of its election victory, the movement possessed a force of around 5,000 to 6,000 fighters, mostly in the Izz a din al-Qassam Brigades. Today Hamas maintains security forces numbering around 25,000, directly employed by the Gaza government. This is in addition to a further 10,000 members of the Qassam Brigades, which are loyal directly to Hamas itself. These forces render the Hamas regime currently invulnerable to any internal attempt to topple them. Internal opposition to Hamas rule is not tolerated.
The Hamas authorities also maintain a tight grip on economic and commercial activity in Gaza. The movement controls the network of tunnels between Gaza and northern Sinai which import weapons and goods in defiance of Egypt’s attempts to control the border.
The system which has emerged in the Gaza Strip is one in which access to goods and services are increasingly dependent on closeness to Hamas. In this way, the movement creates channels of material dependence and solidifies its rule. Thus, Hamas has established an ‘Islamic National Bank’ under its control. An Islamic insurance company and Islamic investment bank have since also been set up. Increasingly, Hamas’s social welfare budgets are channelled through these bodies. Similarly, Islamic charity organisations are increasingly replacing elected local government as providers of social services.
There is also widespread evidence that the Hamas authorities have appropriated aid sent by European and other countries, and used it for re-sale through outlets controlled by the movement. A recent article in the Gulf-based newspaper, ‘The National’, quoted a Gaza-based businessman, Abu Mohammed, who reported, ‘After the takeover, people thought it might get better if the religious guys were in charge of the money, that security would improve and corruption would end. But they’re just as corrupt: If you’re not in Hamas, you get nothing. If anyone does anything, they are arrested, tortured or killed.’
Polls conducted in the Palestinian territories indicate that Hamas lags significantly behind Fatah in terms of electoral support, but because of the effective instruments of repression and dependence, Hamas’s rule in Gaza does not appear in danger.
A transition of the status of Islamic observance from social norm to legal compulsion is also underway in Gaza. The most obvious sign of this is the creation of the ‘Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ security force, which operates under the command of the Ministry of the Waqf (Islamic endowment). This force is tasked with enforcing Islamic codes of behaviour. Its members patrol beaches, parks and public areas, ensuring proper Islamic modesty.
Growth of Salafi movements and the threat to Egypt
The pace of Islamisation of society in Gaza, meanwhile, is being driven by the growth of the influence of extreme, Al Qaeda style Salafi Islamist movements in Gaza. These organisations – most prominent among them Jaish Al-Umma, Jaysh Al-Islam and Fatah al-Islam – are hostile to Hamas because of what they regard as its insufficiently stringent application of Islamic norms to life in the Gaza Strip. These organisations are relatively small, and are not currently in a position to challenge Hamas rule. However, their growth has the effect of strengthening the hand of elements within Hamas with a similar outlook, particularly within Hamas’s military wing. Whist Hamas limits their activities to some extent, for example by largely preventing them from firing rockets at Israel, Hamas risks its own legitimacy as a Jihadi-Isalmist force by clashing with them.
A former Fatah security official, Abu Nizar, described the situation, saying, ‘They can’t challenge Hamas yet. But you can’t hold them off forever. The most religious members want Sharia law and an end to this under-the-table ceasefire. They will never accept Hamas rule, but Hamas tries to appease them by banning women from smoking shisha and other moral laws. But we know appeasing Al Qaeda types never works, they’ll just ask for more and more until one day they have the support to throw Hamas out.’
Hamas has on occasion cooperated with these organisations and at times opposed them. One example of cooperation was the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. A well publicised example of opposition came in August 2009, when Hamas authorities cracked down violently on a small Salafi group that sought to declare an Islamic emirate in southern Gaza. But the general sense is that Hamas tolerates these organisations as long as they do not attempt to challenge Hamas’s power in the Strip.
The largest of the Salafi groups, Jaish al-Islam, is thought to have no more than 500 active militants. But their links to Al Qaeda figures further afield, particularly in Egypt, and Hamas’s tolerance for them, serve to make the continued existence of the Hamas enclave in Gaza a source of major concern to Egyptian security officials.
The Egyptian media reported in late 2007 that one of the heads of Al Qaeda in Egypt had escaped and sought sanctuary in Gaza. In May 2009, Egypt charged that another Al Qaeda-linked group was using Gaza for training terrorists for attacks in Egypt. This group included European Jihadis, according to the report. Then last week came the assassination of the Jaish al-Islam leader, Ahmed Jamil al-Nemnem, who was accused by Israel of planning attacks on US and Israeli targets in the Sinai. Such activities lend increased urgency to the Egyptian determination to act against the smuggling tunnels network between north Sinai and Egypt.
These incidents also highlight the wider threat posed by the Hamas regime in Gaza, which appears ready to tolerate Salafi-Jihadi and Al Qaeda sympathisers using Gaza as a base on the Mediterranean.
Israel‘s response: the dilemmas
Israeli policy makers have been faced with a dilemma since the emergence of the Hamas enclave in Gaza. Hamas could have ended all sanctions against its government by accepting the Quartet conditions for involvement in the negotiating process, i.e. by renouncing violence, committing to prior agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, and accepting Israel’s right to exist. The movement chose not to do so, instead embarking on a course of rocket fire against communities in southern Israel.
Since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, a ceasefire has largely been adhered to by the Gaza regime. Yet the larger dilemma remains. On the one hand, Israel has no desire to ‘punish’ the people of Gaza. On the other hand, the rulers of Gaza have chosen a path of conflict with both Israel and Egypt, making normalisation of relations impossible.
A perfect balance has not been found. After the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010, Israel’s policy changed. Instead of having a list of permitted items it allowed to enter Gaza, Israel’s allowed all items to enter except for a list of prohibited dual-use items. This led to an observed improvement in access to goods. The remaining restrictions relate to materials which may be intended for civil use, but could also be useful in a military context. These include cement and other construction materials. Since July, Israel has begun to allow some construction materials in, for use in internationally supervised construction projects. But the limitations still adversely affect Gaza’s ability to repair the damage suffered during Operation Cast Lead. The maritime blockade remains in place to prevent weapons reaching Gaza.
The removal of all economic sanctions on Hamas ruled Gaza would represent a significant victory for Hamas and its backers. There is no reason to assume that it would be met by conciliatory gestures on the part of Hamas. At the same time, whatever the nature of the regime in Gaza, there is a need to respect the basic needs and rights of Gaza’s population. There is no easy balance to be found between these imperatives.
It is hard to see an end to Hamas in the near future. At the same time, the continuation and further entrenchment of the Hamas regime threatens not only Israeli and Egyptian security, but wider Western interests. Israeli and Egyptian policy currently therefore represents an uneasy containment of the Hamas-ruled Gaza entity.
BICOM Spotlight: Gaza Facts and Analysis