Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza, is now facing a challenge from Islamic State insurgents and growing disenchantment with its leadership.
GAZA CITY — On May 26, a rocket landed in the middle of a field. On June 3, there were two others. And another on June 6. Each time, Israeli forces retaliated immediately, striking targets in Gaza. Though no victims were reported on either side, these strikes reflect a new period of restlessness in the region after nine months of relative quiet.
And yet Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, is not behind these attacks, as Israel itself has acknowledged. Such isolated initiatives are not in its interests. They are instead proof of the tensions between the armed Islamist groups and the self-affirmation of a Salafist branch. The latest strike was claimed Sunday by a group of ISIS supporters in Jerusalem.
The presence of such a Salafist pocket is in itself not new. Along the years, Hamas has swayed between tolerance and repression of such splinter groups. But since the summer of 2014 war, a handful of militants have decided to take armed action and align itself with ISIS. They, for instance, claimed a mortar attack against a base belonging to the al-Qassam Brigades, the military branch of Hamas, in Khan Yunis, as well as a bombing in front of a security forces building in Gaza. In retaliation, Hamas arrested a dozen sympathizers.
"We will not allow anyone to put the interior security at risk," declared Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas leader.
It's impossible to measure the Salafist influence, especially as some activists could be former, disillusioned members of Hamas. But it is clear now that concerted violence can arrive now from multiple quarters.
Secret Hamas-Israel channel
Weakened by "Operation Protective Edge" during the summer of 2014, Hamas is not looking for confrontation with the Jewish state. It has too much to do to keep the territory under control and handle the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
"Hamas doesn't act, it reacts, according to exterior factors such as Egypt, Iran or Israel," says Omar Shaban, director of the Pal-Think center in Gaza. "I don't think they're interested in a new confrontation. They would even sign a long-term ceasefire with Israel if it was on the table."
For the past two months, secret communications between Hamas and Israel have been mentioned in the press, which has enraged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who suspects Israel is trying to deepen the gap between Gaza and the West Bank, to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. In mid-May, the Jordanian newspaper Al-Dustour mentioned a Turkish mediation, which was summarized like this: a five-year ceasefire in exchange for the construction of a floating port off the Gaza coast.
The Israelis enjoy biding their time while the Palestinian divisions multiply, but they also know violence blooms with despair. On May 27, Israel's Head of State Reuven Rivlin even stated he did not "recoil at the idea of negotiating with any willing party." It's impossible to imagine a public agreement between a right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu government and Hamas.
And yet, one well-placed European source said informal discussions between the two parties continue on prisoner swaps and an easing of the blockade in exchange for Hamas guarantees of peace.
Regaining strength amid the ruins
But don't bet on a farewell to arms. Hamas is looking to regain strength amid the ruins. Ahmed Yousef, one of the reformist figures of the movement, says the power of war culture remains an obstacle to Hamas' evolution. "Some people here have never left Gaza, they think the world revolves around it. They see negotiations as a dirty word. But others think a long-term ceasefire could give hope to the people, hope for a fairly normal life."
The leaders of Hamas recognize this prospect: Over the past several months, Israel has loosened its grip, letting more material and people circulate. The drip is keeping the patient in a stable state of survival.
But Hamas has other worries, including talks over national reconciliation with their Palestinian Authority counterparts in the West Bank, which have been frozen, as all sides appear unwilling to give ground.
And elections? Everyone demands them but no one actually wants them. "Abbas decided not to organize them, especially since the result of the vote at the Birzeit University on April 22, in the West Bank, when Hamas won," says Basem Naim, a Hamas executive. In reality, both sides currently lack democratic credentials. When Fatah won the elections at the Bar Association, in early April, the vote was suspended by Hamas.
In addition to the history of violence between both parties — arrests, torture and even executions — the question of public sector employees adds to the tension. The revision of security services has been carefully postponed.
But the administrations still need to be cleaned. After Hamas' rise to power in 2007, thousands of employees of the Palestinian Authority were still being paid without doing anything. Today, these workforces (20,000 for Hamas and 28,000 for the Authority) need to be reviewed.
Hamas accused the Palestinian Authority of being engaged in double dealing and profiting from the reconstruction of post-war Gaza. "Half the already distributed donors' money went into their pockets," says Mahmoud al-Zahar. "Since then, no one knows where it ended up. In these conditions, why would donors keep their promises?"