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Hamas v. ISIS, An Islamist Civil War Simmers In Gaza

After Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, ISIS tries to take root in the Palestinian enclave governed by the Islamists of Hamas. Internecine conflicts get ugly fast.

Palestinian Salafists wave ISIS flags in Gaza City
Palestinian Salafists wave ISIS flags in Gaza City
Céline Lussato

GAZA CITY — The grungy stairwell leaves no doubt: this dilapidated building in the Gaza City district of Sheikh Radwan is indeed where Younes Hanar used to live. Once a fighter for the armed wing of Hamas (the Al-Qassam brigades), he was accused of having joined the forces of ISIS.

On the concrete walls of the building, the graffiti features messages glorifying ISIS (Islamic State) and those condemning the Hamas internal security forces. Also, here and there, one can see the handprints of Hanar's relatives, dipped in his blood.

It was on the fourth floor that the 27-year-old militant was killed on June 2. According to the official version, Hanar resisted arrest, and had explosives strapped to his body that he threatened to set off. But his mother, who lives right below his apartment, and his wife, who was there that morning, tell a different story. The entire neighborhood denounces the killing as a cold-blooded execution.

"They didn't leave him any chance," says Bessima, his mother, showing on her phone the picture of her son's body, thick beard, and decimated face. "They shot through the door and he was hit several times in the chest. Then, they came in and killed him with two bullets in his head." The mother calmly mimes the barrel of a firearm pointed under her own jaw.

The victim's wife, Alaa says that one of her young children might have gone to open the door, and just as easily been shot.

A merciless hunt

Hamas does not trifle with those suspected of associating with ISIS, especially when they come from its own ranks. The Islamist party that has been in power here since 2007 has been hunting down Salafist jihadists without mercy for the past few months across Gaza. And if his family prefers remaining nebulous about Younes Hanar's connections with a movement that claims its affiliations with ISIS, they were in fact real. In the family apartment, where Alaa offers us a tour wrapped in her niqab, the black flag of ISIS is everywhere: painted on one of the walls, on a sticker on one of the bedrooms' door and even a magnet on the fridge.

Declaring their intentions to avenge Hanar's death, the Omar Brigades, a local Salafist group that supports ISIS, began firing rockets into in Israel in early June. On the 30th of the same month, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the branch of Islamic State in Sinai, released a video that accuses the "Hamas tyrants" of laxity in application of Sharia law and warns the movement in power: "We're going to eradicate the Jewish state, you and Fatah. You'll be invaded by our multitudes."

On July 19, five cars belonging to armed wings of Hamas and Islamic jihad were destroyed by explosive devices.

But ask Hamas leaders, and there is no real issue with ISIS in Gaza. In his office, on the 13th floor of a seaside building, Ahmad Youssef, a senior member of Hamas political bureau, dismisses the rocket attacks and says the only current point of concern about ISIS recruitment is in prisons. "But we are working on an important "disindoctrination" process with inmates," Youssef says. "I'm confident that they'll be able to get back to their families in peace soon."

Suppressing any uprising of the jihadist movement is a question of political survival for Hamas. When it rose to power in Gaza, the movement, buyoed by its religious discourse, claimed to defend individual rights and justice in the face of the corrupt Palestinian leaders of Fatah. Today, it is the the ISIS jihadists who accuse Hamas of corruption and taking a moderate stance towards Israel.

Claiming a monopoly on the extreme of Muslim piety is a way to discredit the status quo in this territory. Already in 2009, Hamas was forced to crush the group Jund Ansar Allah during a bloody operation against a mosque in Rafah. Twenty-four people died including the insurgents' leader, Abdelatif Moussa, a man who claimed an alliance with al Qaeda and regularly accused Hamas of being too permissive.

As times have changed, so too have the symbols, explains Ziad Medoukh, the director of the French studies department at Al-Aqsa University. "Today, featuring the name of Islamic State (ISIS) ensures international impact," he says. "But there is no real breeding ground in Gaza for ISIS the way there is in Syria and Iraq."

Christian fears

But local Catholic priest Father Mario sees the situation very differently. "We're very scared that (ISIS) could spread in Gaza. And we can't even flee!"

The young priest, who has been in Gaza for three years, says they are 1,200 Christians including 130 Catholics in the region. "Israel doesn't grant us permits to leave the territory. Some take advantage of permissions granted at Christmas to go to Bethlehem and never come back."

Father Mario fears that supporters of Islamic State will attack their small community in order to gain followers, and that Hamas could eventually lose control.

Across Gaza, the authorities have established nighttime checkpoints to guard against ISIS, and Hamas destroyed an informal mosque in Deir al-Balah, in the center of the Palestinian enclave, thought to be a breeding ground for the jihadists. "I knew the place pretty well," asserts the journalist Hasan Jaber. "I attended Friday prayers some time ago, and there was a prayer dedicated to ISIS's success."

Today, all the militants who have not already been thrown in jail are hiding out. "You won't meet any of them, they don't trust anyone," affirms Jaber, one of the first journalists to report the growth of the new jihadists in Gaza.

Ad hoc warriors?

Families of jihadists hold out hope for a quick release of their loved ones, and do not want to attract the wrath of Hamas. "Our son didn't do anything," says the mother of one inmate, Mahmoud.

The woman's small apartment is in Beach Camp, a refugee camp constructed in 1948 to accommodate Palestinians who fled from Jaffa, Lod and Beer-Sheva. Poverty here is endemic, with electricity working only a few hours a day and scarce tap water, delivered by electric pumping systems.

Mahmoud's mother says her son wound up in jail only because he fought with Salafis during the last war against Israel in the summer of 2014. "There are some groups that are founded on their own, buy weapons as they can," she said. "They're just people who want to resist."

Opposite the front door of the woman's apartment, across the street where bare-footed kids play, one can see the ISIS black flag, with the words "Ansar al-Dawla Islamia" ("supporters of the Islamic State"). Mahmoud's friends painted these inscriptions for his wedding. Today, he is in prison and his wife raises their 19-month son Osman alone.

"It's all because of a Hamas political game," declares Mohamad Taaleb, the young man's lawyer. "They want to appear like moderates in the eyes of Westerners with whom they are negotiating. But they shouldn't play with fire."

He says it's about economics ultimately: "if people's situation does not improve, then yes, some of them will turn to ISIS."

A year after the most recent and devastating war and ten years after the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza, the living situation here is catastrophic. The unemployment rate is at 44%, while 39% of the enclave lives below the poverty line; four out of five inhabitants survive only thanks to humanitarian assistance. Above all, 10,000 people are still looking for permanent housing. In Al-Shejaya, in eastern Gaza, the Israeli army razed entire neighborhoods connected to the tunnels dug for militants to sneak into the Jewish state.

It is here, in a tent, in the middle of an empty lot, that the Chamali family lives. "My husband was a member of the Al-Qassam brigades, he was killed here defending our lands," states Sabah. "A year later, we still don't have a home. What is Hamas doing?" she denounces. "What will my children become with no father, no roof, no job prospects?"

Hasan Jaber fears that Hamas will ultimately be unable to stop Islamic State, in part because ISIS may rise from within. "There are many at odds with current negotiations with Israel. There are strong sympathies for the jihadist movement within the party in power itself," the journalist explains. "Is Younes Hanar's very own mother not herself a Hamas militant? They raised a lion cub in their house. But he grew up and he won't hesitate to devour them if he has a chance."

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