On Wednesday, 6 January, BICOM hosted a conference call for journalists with Dr Benedetta Berti, on the ISIS affiliate’s presence in the Sinai and Gaza, its complex dynamic with Hamas and the threat it poses to Egypt and Israel. Dr Berti’s areas of expertise include human security, internal conflict, integration of armed groups, post-conflict stabilisation and peace-building and strategic nonviolence. She works as a human security and foreign policy consultant for both political risk consulting firms, NGOS, international organisations as well as governments. Below is an edited transcript.
Reports circulating in the past week have conflicting information: on the one hand we hear Hamas is fighting Islamic State-affiliated groups in Gaza, on the other hand we hear other reports saying Hamas is cooperating with ISIS.
We can better understand the situation if we start by looking at the very complicated relationship between Hamas, and the groups that operate in Gaza and Sinai. By placing these relationships in context, we can understand why Hamas has a conflictual relationship with Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza and a different sort of relationship with Salafi-jihadist groups in Sinai.
The relationship between Gaza and Sinai has become incredibly important in the past few years. Sinai has been key to Gaza for a long time (specifically after Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and even more so after 2007 and their takeover of the Gaza Strip) and the ramping of economic restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip.
The more Gaza has been isolated and the more the inflows and outflows of goods and people were restricted, the more the relationship between Gaza and Sinai became a very embedded and important one.
The underground tunnel economy which developed from late 2007 offered benefits for many parties involved. For most of the civilian population in Gaza, the tunnels offered the possibility to obtain commodities which became scarcer after the beginning of the economic restriction. It also brought very important economic interest to the Hamas government which was able to extract revenues from regulating this tunnel economy. The other main actor that became relevant in this Sinai-Gaza relationship was the Al-Qassam Brigades; they started to operate some specific tunnels to deal with their own acquisition of weapons.
The situation started to change after the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013. The new Egyptian authority has a completely different approach to Sinai, Gaza, and Hamas. This has resulted in repeated crackdowns against the underground tunnels – basically crippling the tunnel economy. It has also resulted in the almost permanent (with a few exceptions) closure of the border in Rafah.
This led to losses for criminal armed smugglers and military groups involved in underground trading on the Sinai side and for Hamas, for the Gazan population and for the Al-Qassam Brigades. We have a situation in which all these parties are trying to obtain what they are seeking – in the case of the Al-Qassam Brigades, mostly weapons – and they will buy it from whoever is selling as obtaining both weapons and smuggled goods has become harder.
This is the context in which you have the rise of a partnership between actors that ideologically don’t have much in common.
The crackdown on the tunnel economy has an impact on Gaza, complicating the already dire humanitarian situation.
Hamas is under severe pressure because of the humanitarian situation. It has lost significant revenue since the Egyptian restrictions on the tunnel economy and border, and because the reconstruction progress -even though it has substantially increased since the summer – is not really where it needs to be.
Also, there have been repeated strikes and protests, for example over the increased taxes Hamas is trying to impose on the population to extract more revenue – so we see an organisation that is under stress.
This of course affects the relationship of Hamas with the Salafi-jihadist camp in Gaza. The Salafi-jihadist camp in Gaza is a name we give to an heterogeneous, small, unsophisticated group of people and organisations that have risen – mostly in the post-2007 period – characterised by their very negative assessment of Hamas, of the Hamas government, and by their self-proclaimed ‘jihadist ideology’; first by being pro Al-Qaeda and more recently pro-ISIS. These violent groups have been challenging Hamas since 2007.
Hamas has had a very conflictual relationship with them. On the one hand, they have an incentive to crack down on them, arrest them, and fight them, because they don’t want their power challenged. In the summer of 2009 one of these groups declared autonomy in Rafah and declared the creation of the “Islamic Emirate of Rafah.” Because of that, Hamas basically cracked down on them violently.
On the other hand, Hamas also had a desire to save image, to save face, to not be seen as cracking down on other armed groups that fight Israel. Hamas has always been trying to balance between these two priorities.
Lately things have become more complicated because in the past year and a half some of these groups have shifted allegiance from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. Also, there has been the rise of a couple of new groups pledging allegiance to ISIS and a number of preachers in Gaza speaking positively of the Islamic State project and basically declaring their loyalty to it.
Hamas initially reacted by ignoring the phenomenon. Then, last spring Hamas went after these groups; arrested some of the leaders, destroyed one of the mosques where they were meeting, some took a fairly strong signal that they would not tolerate the rise of this pro-ISIS camp in Gaza.
However, today Hamas is far more cautious. It still has no interest in seeing any political or armed opponents rising up in Gaza and it certainly has no interest in seeing the rise of a strong ISIS camp – which is very critical of Hamas, says Hamas is not Islamic enough, that it is not fighting Israel enough, and that it hasn’t imposed Sharia.
At the same time, because of the situation and because there are a growing number of people gravitating towards this Salafist-jihadist camp, and because of the situation in Gaza, Hamas has become much more careful about openly going after these groups.
Hamas is under quite significant internal pressure over the fact that the group has so far (not openly) publicly stepped in to join this last round of conflict between Israel and Palestinians, and this is causing some internal pressure. In other words, they are trying to balance some mutually exclusive goals such as keeping power in Gaza, keeping stability and, at the same time, keeping internal conflict at bay and demonstrating that they are still the ‘Islamic Resistance’.
They’re particularly worried of potential defections. We’ve seen a number of defections by Al- Qassam Brigade members to ISIS groups. This is triggered by a sense of frustration over the fact that Hamas hasn’t openly fought Israel for a while now, and a financial crisis which has resulted in salary cuts and reductions to many in the group.
To cut a long story short, Hamas’s relationship with the ISIS camp in Gaza is antagonistic. They don’t want it to rise in Gaza, they don’t want the pro-ISIS groups in Gaza to cooperate with those in Sinai, and they don’t want the situation to escalate because they want to keep the fragile relationship that they have with Egypt – they don’t want it to get worse.
Contradiction in strategy?
But that’s only half of the picture. The other half of the picture is that while this is happening, and it’s truly Hamas’s interest in Gaza, there is also – and this has boomed with the post-Morsi situation in Sinai – an interest by Al-Qassam Brigades to create a decent relationship with the armed groups who are operating in Sinai and to be able to do business with them: mostly in terms of weapons trading.
This creates a contradictory situation where Hamas in Gaza is not interested in the rise of pro-ISIS groups but at the same time the Al-Qassam Brigades in Sinai cooperates and trades weapons with some of the groups that are ideologically equivalent to the ISIS groups that Hamas is fighting in Gaza.
This is not so much because of a shared vision or shared ideology but because, at this point in time, anybody is doing business with anybody within Sinai. This creates a clash between what Hamas wants for Gaza, which is not a proliferation of pro-ISIS cells, and some of the deals part of the group is doing in Sinai.
Question: Do you expect a serious challenge to the Hamas leadership from Salafi groups in 2016?
Berti: Not militarily. Hamas continues to be the main armed faction by far.
Politically, I also think Hamas remains largely in control, but there are some serious cracks in the system. For example, the fact that the salary crisis hasn’t been solved: you have a larger number – especially hailing from the security sector, from the Al-Qassam Brigades – who are becoming frustrated with the situation. That’s a very vulnerable point because those are elements that have training, that have access to weapons, and if they turn against Hamas, it could spell trouble for the organisation.
The other way in which I think this Salafi-jihadist camp can challenge Hamas is more indirectly; this is what they have been doing in the past by breaking the ceasefire and launching rocket attacks against Israel.
Israel at this point is very much aware of the situation. It knows who is launching rockets, but Israel still holds Hamas responsible. This is a situation that could potentially trigger an escalation but also could put Hamas in a very complicated position. If a year ago, after the launching of rockets ,Hamas responded quite forcefully by arresting those that were behind it, today they have far less leeway to do so because they are being criticised. There’s a lot more debate, even internally, about why Hamas is not stepping up now that there is what many Palestinians are calling a third Intifada. That restricts Hamas’s responses.
So Salafist groups are not a challenge in the sense that they are going to overthrow Hamas, but they are definitely a political challenge, especially if we look at public opinion polls – we see that more and more people are losing faith in the Hamas government.
Question: Could you talk about the cooperation there may be between ISIS groups in Gaza and Sinai those in and Syria and Iraq?
Berti: In Gaza it’s easy to describe the extent of the cooperation because we can say these groups are more self-identified as pro-ISIS. They take the message, the branding, they have tried to send a number of people, again smuggling through Sinai, to go and fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but overall you cannot talk about strategic partnership, there is certainly no strong cooperation or connection.
This is very similar to when the Salafi-jihadist camp called themselves Al-Qaeda. They had taken the Al-Qaeda ideology, some people had received some training but there was very little actual cooperation.
Sinai is different. The Islamic State group – called Sinai Province – is an actual official affiliate of the Islamic State. They have far better military capabilities, far better strategy; they also have a far more extensive relationship with the central ISIS which is in Iraq and Syria. If we are trying to understand what kind of organisation can actually be a security threat, I would definitely shift my focus on the Sinai side in terms of weapons, capabilities, number of people recruited, freedom of movement, and also because of the real contacts and ongoing strategic cooperation that they have with ISIS. They also send fighters of course, but they are also very much busy building their own proto-Islamic State in Sinai.
Question: The ISIS leader has said the group will target Israel. Where is the group most likely going to succeed in doing so? From Syria, Jordan, Egypt or will they attempt to radicalise Arab citizens of Israel?
Berti: Looking north at the situation in the Syrian Golan, I would say – and of course it’s a prediction – that this is where we would least expect attacks towards Israel for the simple reason that there is a fairly fierce battle being waged between the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, on the one hand and rebel groups – including some of them hailing from the jihadist camp.
The last thing that a group like Jahbat al-Nusra needs in the Golan is to worsen the situation by getting into a conflict with Israel, and that’s one of the reasons why so far if you look at that border, that particular battlefield, the situation has been fairly quiet when it comes to exchanges within the IDF and rebel groups. Most of the confrontations that we’ve had in the northern border have been between the IDF and Hezbollah.
In terms of other options: Israel is looking very carefully to what’s happening in Jordan. It’s looking very carefully to the challenges Jordan itself faces, not just because of ISIS but because of a combination of an economic crisis, the refugee crisis, but also because ISIS pressing on their border.
Israel is very worried about this not just because of potential direct threat it may face, but also because Israel sees the survival and the stability of the Jordanian government as one of its national security interests.
Sinai is certainly a plausible option, because ISIS groups there have acquired significant capabilities. They have grown in size and ambition; they have launched a few attacks against Israel, but have mostly been on against the Egyptian security forces in Sinai.
If we follow the ISIS strategic communication propaganda we can see that they do send specific messages to communities within Israel. By and large they are not received.
If we compare the Middle Eastern countries and how many ISIS fighters come from each country, we know that those hailing from the Arab-Israeli community are a small minority. That said, ISIS definitely wants to create internal cells because that’s their modus operandi.