Gaza Jihadists undermine Egypt-Hamas cooperation

Even the most pessimistic political leaders in Hamas could not have foreseen the repercussions of the involvement of Gazan Salafi jihadists in an Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) operation targeting an Egyptian security checkpoint at al-Barth (south of Rafah in Sinai) on July 7, 2017. The timing is critical because Hamas-Egyptian relations are experiencing an unprecedented breakthrough by trying to enforce stricter procedures to control the borders with Egypt and has arrested dozens of pro-Islamic State Palestinians in Gaza. Additionally, Hamas responded positively to Egyptian efforts towards achieving national reconciliation with the Fattah movement. Furthermore, Hamas announced the dissolution of the administrative committee that it had formed to administer Gaza strip. It also stated its readiness to formulate a national unity government.  

The disclosure of Gazan-ISIS operatives killed in the operation provided a golden opportunity for those trying to question Hamas’s intentions and undermine the credibility of its efforts to secure the Egyptian borders. Moreover, it strengthened the Israeli claim that Hamas has strong ties with ISIS’ so-called Sinai Province, or Wilayat Sinai. To show its friendship to Egypt, Hamas erected mourning tents for the deceased Egyptian soldiers, published their pictures around key squares,  denounced the attack, and emphasized its commitment to the promises it made previously in a series of meetings in Cairo.

The participation of Gazan Jihadists in the operation against the al-Barth checkpoint was no surprise. This lies in the fact that they escaped from the Gaza Strip and enrolled in ISIS just two months prior to the operation on May 1, 2017, according to a source in the Internal Security Agency in the Gaza Administration. This fact reinforces the premise that ISIS deliberately sent Palestinian fighters, despite being fresh recruits, to thwart rapprochement efforts between Egypt and Hamas that would consequently threaten its existence in Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai tried to put pressure on Hamas to foil any agreement with the Egyptian government. They strangled Hamas’s economy by closing the underground tunnels that  constitute a lifeline for besieged Gaza. Additionally, ISIS instructed the Sinai Bedouin smugglers in December 2016 to stop trafficking any goods into Gaza Strip, threatening to punish violators. In an unprecedented move, ISIS published pictures on its media outlets of Gazan Jihadists and former al-Qassam Brigade fighters (IDQB) who recently joined ISIS or who were killed in action fighting on its side. This politically embarrassed Hamas at a time when it was trying to improve its relations with Egypt and demonstrate its commitment to securing the borders, going after pro-ISIS jihadists in Gaza and trying to prevent their infiltration into Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai commander, Abu Hajer Al-Hashemi, made a statement to al-Nabaa, an ISIS newspaper, in which he launched an attack against Hamas leadership, accusing them of heresy, instigating its operatives to wage a war against Wilayat Sinai, and inviting Gazan youth to migrate into ISIS’ Wilayat Sinai. He also promoted the idea that Hamas is prosecuting Salafi jihadists for launching missiles on the Jewish state and for threatening the authority of the “infidel” Hamas.

These complex relations and mutual accusations among active parties in the “Sinai dilemma” lead to two questions that this paper will treat. First, what are the limits of the relationship between Wilayat Sinai and Hamas? Second, what prompted the recent rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt, and what made Egypt change its stance toward Hamas?

The relationship between the Hamas Administration and Gazan Salafists and its impact upon Sinai

Sinai recently witnessed significant fatalities among Salafi jihadists from Gaza who joined the ranks of Wilayat Sinai. Some were former elite fighters in Hamas’s IDQB. However, Sinai was not the only destination for many of these Gazan fighters. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli institution specialized in security in intelligence issues, published a study in 2014 stating that around thirty Gazan recruits joined the ranks of ISIS and that most of them were former fighters in Gazan Salafi-Jihadist Groups. Of those who defected from Hamas, some had no clear, formal affiliation with Hamas.

In this regard, an informed source in the Internal Security Agency of Gaza Administration confirmed that at least 130 Palestinians joined ISIS’ Sinai branch during the past three years, some of whom were previously IDQB operatives. One was Muhammad Hassan Abu Shaweesh, a leading field commander in Palestinian Rafah, who joined Wilayat Sinai in early 2016. The loss of such prominent figures shocked Hamas and spread concern that extremist ideology was widespread in its ranks.

Why do those fighters favor joining the ranks of Wilayat Sinai over fighting alongside Palestinian Groups in Gaza Strip?

Among key reasons prompting fighters to emigrate from Gaza is the tension between Hamas and Salafi-jihadist groups. This tension is not new and has deep ideological roots that started to surface a few years ago.

Hamas belongs intellectually to a school of the Muslim Brotherhood, practicing pragmatism in government and politics in line with the demands of governing the blockaded Strip, its aspirations of improving relations with the West, and the pressures exerted by human rights organizations and domestic populations. Hamas attempts to present itself as a national liberation movement against an occupying power. On the other hand, Salafi-jihadist groups have more radical concepts of the way life should be managed in Gaza. They demand the immediate application of Sharia laws on the citizens of the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, they attempt to attract more supporters by adopting a rhetoric of open confrontation with Israel and the rejection of Hamas’ truces with Israel. They accuse Hamas of abandoning the resistance against Israel and of allowing Shiism to spread over the Gaza Strip to gain Iran’s support. They also see themselves as belonging more to a global jihadist movement rather than to a national Palestinian resistance. Consequently, there have always been serious divergences and violent confrontations between the two fronts.

One of the most prominent confrontations took place in August 2009 in a mosque in Rafah. Sheikh Abdul Latif Moussa, who was appointed a Commander of the Jund Ansar Allah Group, a Salafi-jihadist group based in Gaza, prompted the conflict. On August 14, Abdul Latif declared an Islamic emirate in Gaza. Hamas Administration considered this declaration to be defying its authority and responded by killing him and around twenty of his followers. Hamas’ strict dealing with Moussa, which also included banning journalists from interviewing the wounded, led a number al-Qaeda members to condemn Hamas as an apostate movement and accuse it of serving “the Jewish usurpers…and Christians who are fighting Muslims.”

Subsequently, the two parties maintained a rather tense co-existence. Interaction was limited to a few encounters in which Hamas saw the Salafi-jihadists as meddling with domestic activities without the consensus of other Palestinian factions. Salafi jihadists launched numerous missiles towards Israeli settlements due to their refusal of any truces, embarrassing Hamas. Hamas, in turn, says their objective is non-jihadi and frequently accuses Salafi jihadists of adhering to an extremist ideology.

Over the past few years, Hamas carried out arrest campaigns against Salafi-jihadists in Gaza, causing fighters to flee to Sinai. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State in 2014, but none of the pro-ISIS groups were capable of establishing a “province” of ISIS in Gaza because they lacked a strong presence in that area, were not united, and lacked grassroots support. Moreover, they did not receive support from the central ISIS structure in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, to achieve their goal of establishing their own territory, Pro-ISIS youth emigrated to Sinai.

Influence of Gazan fighters emigrants upon the upon the qualitative development of Wilayat Sinai

The capacities of the former Ansar Bait al-Maqdis supporters evolved drastically after pledging their allegiance to ISIS and changing their name to “Wilayat Sinai” in November 2014. Wilayat Sinai is now capable of conducting major offensive operations against the Egyptian army in Sinai. Much of this development can be attributed to support, funding, and expertise from ISIS. However, a closer look reveals that a significant part of Wilayat Sinai’s development lies in the emigration of fighters from Gaza to Sinai,  bringing  combat and operational experience accumulated from fighting the Israeli army.

Gaza formed a perfect incubator for configuration of formidable fighters with extensive experience. Many Palestinians fought fierce battles in eastern and northern Gaza and confronted Israeli soldiers face to face in three confrontations in the last decade alone: 2008, 2012, and 2014. Individuals from a variety of ideological backgrounds, including Salafists in Gaza, joined various Palestinian armed movements, not for the end goal of fighting Israel, but for acquiring military experience. These jihadists then traveled to other battlefields, such as Syria, Iraq, and recently Sinai, after becoming experts in the use of various weapons, explosives, and guerrilla warfare tactics. For example, Wilayat Sinai’s sniper unit is actively working against the Egyptian army in Sinai. Wilayat Sinai issued several publications in this regard, most notably a video released in April 2017 entitled “Heartbreakers,” which shows off the ability of their snipers to kill Egyptian soldiers.

The Israeli Defense magazine reported that Iranian-made weapons appeared in the possession of Wilayat Sinai fighters. The report mentions that Iran is supplying the fighters of the terrorist group with multiple weapons, particularly the “AM-50” sniper. In an article entitled, “Iran sells Weapons to Wilayat Sinai”, the magazine said that “this weapon, spotted with the group’s fighters, simulates the Austrian sniper rifle (Steyr HS50), one of the best sniper rifles in the world.” It pointed out that Iran provided the same type of weapons to Hezbollah, the Syrian government’s army, and its Palestinian allies in Gaza. This gun appeared in Gaza Strip in one of the IDQB’s military parades in 2013, about three years before its appearance in Sinai. It is likely that this weapon came to Sinai from Gaza, either through an operative trained to use it that joined Wilayat Sinai, or an Wilayat Sinai seizure of a shipment of weapons coming from Iran on its way to Gaza Strip.

The Middle East Blog interviewed Abu Suhaib from Gaza Strip; a Palestinian who recently defected from Wilayat Sinai and returned to Gaza. He confirmed that an MT, a former Hamas IDQB sniper officer in Tal Sultan Brigade in the Palestinian city of Rafah, recently joined Wilayat Sinai.

Abu Suhaib also spoke of his own experience. He entered Sinai through underground tunnels, as did dozens of ISIS supporters in Gaza Strip. However, he noted that this is not the only way ISIS supporters from Gaza Strip traveled to Sinai. Rather, many operatives crossed over the cement wall separating Sinai and Gaza. In particular, he spoke of six individuals crossing over the wall from Tal Zo’rob at 5 am on May 1 to join the ranks of Wilayat Sinai. “After entering the Egyptian land over the wall, one of them, who was carrying a weapon and several bombs, clashed with the military tower of the Egyptian army, before being transported in an SUV belonging [Wilayat Sinai] to a safe place,” he said. An insider source in the Internal Security Agency in Gaza Strip confirmed this information. Some of those six individuals were later involved in the terrorist attack against al-Barth ambush in June 2017.

According to Abu Suhaib, since early 2016 Wilayat Sinai has benefited from several experts from Gaza in digging tunnels. Underground tunnels are a key factor in helping ISIS survive in Sinai. Because there are no mountains and sand covers much of the peninsula, the geography of the area impedes the Egyptian army’s ability to maneuver and blend in. Operatives brought know-how experience from Gaza to the establishment of an underground structure of shelters to be used as hideouts for individuals, warehouses for weapons, and command and operations rooms. The latest among those individuals was Muoaz al-Qadhi, who the Egyptian army killed during clashes on July 7, 2017.

The informer from the Internal Security Agency in Gaza also confirmed that some of those who joined Wilayat Sinai, such as Sobhi al-Attar, Abdul Ilah Qeshta, were IDQB operatives before adopting ISIS ideology and joining its ranks.

The relationship between IDQB and Wilayat Sinai

Hamas has long had a complex relationship with Salafi-jihadist groups operating in Gaza. Recently, a series of clashes surfaced between Hamas and pro-ISIS groups in Gaza, shedding light on the intricate balance between the two parties. Hamas adopted different approaches to handle Salafi-jihadist groups, varying between harsh crackdowns and tolerance.

Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, states in one of her reports that Hamas adopted an aggressive attitude against armed jihadi groups, hoping to nip them in the bud, and carried out large-scale arrests against them during the first half of 2015. The Hamas administration in Gaza also put individuals demonstrating affinity towards ISIS under surveillance. Confrontations escalated in early May 2015 following Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya’s seventy-two-hour deadline for Hamas to free all Salafi detainees. Hamas destroyed the small Mutahabeen Mosque as part of an ongoing campaign of arrests. Operatives from Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya responded by launching attacks against Hamas, including mortar attacks on an IDQB base in southern Gaza. Hamas’s media rhetoric worked to diminish the impact of these attacks and denied the existence of ISIS affiliated groups in Gaza, claiming that they exist only on the Internet.

Wilayat Sinai’s strategy is to exploit the blockade imposed on Gaza since 2007 and blackmail the Hamas administration and pressure it into ceasing its crackdown against ISIS supporters in Gaza. Wilayat Sinai closed the underground tunnels, which are the lifelines of the blockaded strip, by threatening those who control the tunnels. The Gaza administration directly benefits from the tunnels by taxing the goods coming through them. For instance, cigarettes are taxed at seven shekels per pack. To get Wilayat Sinai to reopen the tunnels, Hamas reduced its arrest campaigns against Salafi-jihadists and released a large number of detainees who were not involved in violent incidents.

Although Hamas’ pragmatism forced it to compromise to get the tunnels reopened, it began to worry about the extremist ideology influencing Hamas members and hurting the cohesion of its armed wing, the IDQB. Since becoming a political power, Hamas has been forced to moderate its behavior in ways that upset many of its own extremist-leaning members, particularly by committing to truces with Israel, not enforcing Sharia in Gaza, and establishing strong relations with Shia Iran. Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza played on this dissatisfaction to attract followers. It is unlikely that there is any direct structural relationship between Hamas and Wilayat Sinai, not only because of deep ideological divergences, but because Hamas views this ideology as a real threat to its grip over its armed wing and over the internal front in Gaza Strip. Moreover, Hamas’ growing perception of ISIS as a threat facilitated its growing relations with Egypt.

Security coordination between Egypt and Hamas

What worries the Egyptian government the most is not the indirect utilitarian relationship between Hamas and Wilayat Sinai in which the smugglers tunnel play a mediation role. Rather, what troubles the Egyptian government is the recruiting of trained Salafi-jihadists and some elite Hamas operatives in Wilayat Sinai after defecting from the movement.

There has been a lot of talk recently about Cairo and Hamas normalizing relations. What prompted Egypt to change its position on the movement that is accused of collaborating with Wilayat Sinai?

The official and semi-official media propaganda in Egypt justified its hostile campaign against Gaza Strip and the establishment of a buffer zone in Egyptian Rafah in 2014, by claiming that there was close cooperation between Hamas and Wilayat Sinai. Hamas, in turn, distrusted the seriousness of the Egyptian commitment to ease the Gaza blockade, and thus was slow to take measures to control the borders with Egypt. These tensions prompted the Egyptian authorities to close the Rafah crossing for most of the period from 2013 until recently, when it was opened in August 2017. A brief breakthrough in the relationship between Cairo and Hamas occurred in 2016, when the Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah crossing for five consecutive days, allowing more than 4,500 Palestinians to leave or enter the Gaza Strip.

Recently, the Hamas administration took several measures to control the borders by setting up a buffer zone along the borders with Egypt. It has installed cameras along the borderline, built watchtowers, started conducting patrols and ambushes along the borderline, and clamped down on a number of tunnels under residential neighborhoods.

The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, commented on a report by the Israeli NGO Gisha on the future of relations between Egypt and Hamas, saying it implies that they have reached an understanding. The newspaper attributed it to the mutual benefit between Egypt and Hamas. Namely, Egypt wants Hamas to exploit its relations with armed ISIS supporters in the Sinai to crackdown on ISIS. In return, Hamas aspires to gain Egypt’s support and acknowledgement of it as the governing power in Gaza. Israeli newspaper, Davar Rishon, said that Egypt managed to create a fracture between Hamas and the radical ISIS in Sinai by taking advantage of the dire economic conditions in Gaza and the promises of the Egyptian president to help them.

Hamas spokesman, Hazem Qassem, stressed Hamas’ interest in developing relations with Egypt, pointing out that all historical and geographical aspects push towards normalizing relations between Egypt and Gaza. Former Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Khaled Mashaal, emphasized the movement’s initiatives to improve relations with Egypt, stressing the movement’s concern for Egypt’s national security and insisting on non-interference in its internal affairs. This is what Hamas has already begun to implement through several activities, most notably organizing a celebration in Gaza in solidarity with Egypt in the face of terrorism on August 5, 2017.

The Egyptian government’s new strategy aims at cooperating with Hamas to tighten the siege on Wilayat Sinai. This entails changes in the media on each side. In Gaza, Egypt wants propaganda critical of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stop, and Hamas wants media critical of it and of the Palestinian resistance to be curtailed in Egypt. Reducing hostile media helps both sides politically, and hurts ISIS, which benefits from public dissatisfaction to attract recruits.

An informed source in the Internal Security Agency confirmed that bridges of trust between Egypt and Hamas in the field of ​​security cooperation took a more serious form. In mid-July, Egyptian intelligence handed over to the Gaza security services material evidence of dissident operatives from the armed wing of the Nasser Salah el-Din Troops, an armed faction in Gaza, who planned to carry out operations against Israel. On July 23rd, Hamas internal security services arrested Yusuf Abu Zor, commander of the suicide unit of the Salah al-Din Troops, and others.

The success of this new approach—opening the Gaza border crossing but cooperating with Hamas—has yet to be seen. Opening the crossing will alleviate the humanitarian situation and appeal to many who might otherwise be frustrated and easily recruited by ISIS. It will also reduce Gaza’s dependence on tunnels, channeling people and goods through official crossings. The question remains whether or not Hamas will be able to commit to cracking down on extremist groups, which will aggravate many Palestinians and feed the extremists’ narrative that Hamas is an infidel and traitor to the Palestinian cause.

Ahmed Salem, is an independent researcher on matters of Sinai and Violent Movements, he can be followed via Twitter at: @ AhmedSalem83

Image: Photo: An Egyptian military vehicle is seen on the highway in northern Sinai, Egypt, May 25, 2015. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih