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Rise of Islamic State in Gaza forces Israel to adopt new Hamas policy

By Missing Peace

Gaza rocket fire

Analysis

The rising threat of the Islamic State across the Middle East has resulted in unlikely cooperation between sworn enemies.

Yesterday, for example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had launched airstrikes on ISIS positions during a battle between the Islamic State and the Islamist coalition that is led by Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. This appears to be one of the changes in U.S. strategy against the Islamic State after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi, close to Baghdad, and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

But there’s more.

After last week’s surge in rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza – on Saturday, Islamic State supporters in Gaza launched another rocket on southern Israel – Israel suddenly appeared to realize that it should not do ISIS’ bidding and weaken Hamas by launching a major operation to stop the renewed rocket attacks from Gaza.

Israeli commentators have pointed out that the goal of the Islamic State’s actions in Gaza is to destabilize the situation to the point that the Hamas regime collapses. So when Israel was attacked again on Saturday evening, the Israeli Air Force uncharacteristically responded by bombing empty buildings in the Gaza strip.

A high ranking IDF official explained why “the purpose of the recent rocket launches from the Gaza Strip was to inflame matters between Hamas and Israel.” He added that the Islamic State expected that “Israel would attack Hamas and do its work for it.”

From the words of this anonymous official, it becomes clear that for Israel, Hamas is no longer the number one threat emanating from Gaza. The government in Jerusalem seems to prefer Hamas’ rule in Gaza to a possible coup by the Salafist groups that have sworn alliance to the Islamic State.

Bringing down Hamas in Gaza would not serve Israel’s strategic interests at this point. Although Hamas is the same Hamas that has vowed to destroy Israel, it is at least the devil Israel knows. The Islamic State is fighting according to its own set of rules that are quite unique in the history of warfare. The organization does all sorts of things that have nothing to do with conventional warfare, or even with terrorism as we knew it thus far.

So Israel is now working to keep Hamas in the Gaza Strip for the time being. Times of Israel analyst Avi Issacharoff pointed out that Israel is currently working with Hamas’ allies, Turkey and Qatar, to restore calm in the Gaza Strip and allow mediation between it and Hamas.

There have been reports for months now about secret talks between Hamas and Israel via foreign mediators about a long term truce in Gaza.

“Israel is allowing Qatar a foothold in the Gaza Strip through Mohammed Al-Emadi, the Qatari ambassador to Gaza, and allowing Turkey to be involved in the Palestinian issue as well. A little more than three weeks ago, Israel let Turkish religious affairs minister Mehmet Görmez visit Gaza with a high-ranking delegation. (The group also went to the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and received a warm reception. When Jordanian Chief Justice Sheikh Ahmed Halil visited there, worshipers threw shoes at him.),” Issacharoff wrote.

He asked why Israel is not trying – via the Americans – to bring back the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. This question is best answered by Italian foreign policy analyst Benedetti Berti. She wrote that the Salafist movement in Gaza is on the rise and is influenced by the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq last year.

“This has created a number of challenges for Hamas, which is already struggling to address severe economic issues in Gaza. The much-hoped-for relief that was supposed to arrive following the announcement of the unity government in spring 2014 has not materialized, and the pre-existing economic crisis has been further exacerbated by the damage inflicted on Gaza by the summer 2014 war with Israel and the glacial pace of reconstruction. Hamas has been largely unable to pay for the salaries of its more than 40,000 employees, leading to growing dissatisfaction within Gaza and recurring and more extended strikes,” Berti wrote.

All this plays into the hands of the supporters of the Islamic State and will contribute to the rise of the organization in Gaza, where the tide has been turning ever since Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

The rise of Hamas in Gaza was a sign of the times. Palestinian society has been influenced by Islamism for a long time now, and the only reason the Palestinian Authority is still in charge of the so called West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is the presence of the IDF. That’s why the PA always threatens to end security cooperation with Israel but never carries out these threats. The Palestinian Authority exists by the grace of outside players, the donors in the West and the Arab world, and by the presence of the Israeli army. If free elections were to be held tomorrow, Hamas would win and take over the West Bank.

In Gaza, the situation is different; the population has been living under the rule of an Islamist organization for years, and society has become more Islamist as a result. Under these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect that the unpopular Palestinian Authority could reverse this process and lead Gaza to prosperity and moderation. After all, Palestinians voted Hamas into power in 2006 because of rampant corruption in the PA; and since then, the situation has not changed for the better.

So for now, Israel and Hamas share an interest. Both parties don’t want the Islamic State to take over Gaza and turn it into a province of the Caliphate.

In light of this, it is interesting to note that the Egyptians too have suddenly changed their approach to Hamas. On Saturday, an Egyptian court ruled that Hamas should be taken off the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s list of terrorist organizations. Another Egyptian court had labeled Hamas a terrorist group in February, one month after a similar ruling against its military wing, Izz ad-Din al Qassam. The ruling was welcomed by Hamas and will ease Egyptian pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Gaza.