No, not Israel. Hamas knows full well that, provided it continues to desist from unprovoked and indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian targets, Israel poses no threat – which is why, ever since the Pillar of Defense cease-fire, it has largely refrained from mounting such attacks itself, and undertaken considerable efforts to prevent wilder activists within Gaza from launching them either.
And no, not the Palestinian Authority, though Hamas leaders undoubtedly have their eye on the possible prize of eventually taking over the PA and its presidency and thus controlling the whole of the Palestinian body politic. They denounce PA President Mahmoud Abbas at every turn, declare that his term of office expired six years ago, reject outright his approach to the United Nations last autumn for recognition of Palestine within the context of a two-state solution, and seek to undermine his authority within the West Bank at every opportunity.
Hamas’s real enemy is the enemy within – within Gaza, that is – the al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups, such as the Majlis, who call themselves “Salafi jihadists” to the fury of leading Salafi scholars. In fact Salafi is a religious movement within Sunni Islam which looks back to earliest Muslim practice, and leading Salafist clerics have gone so far as to issue fatwas condemning suicide bombing and the killing of innocent civilians, declaring it to be totally forbidden in Islam.
The extremist organisation the Majlis was launched as recently as June 2012 by way of a video, released from the Sinai Peninsula. It featured seven fighters, two of whom had carried out a suicide cross-border attack on Israel. The Majlis has subsequently embarked on a policy of vying with Hamas for public support. Criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood in general, and Hamas in particular, has been a recurring theme. It is utterly opposed to Egypt’s political accommodation with the US, which has been maintained – for good financial reasons – despite the access to power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its objections to Hamas in Gaza are twofold: failure of Hamas to apply Islamic law rigorously enough, and outrage at the crackdown by the Hamas administration on Salafi activists, who continually attempt to seize the anti-Israel initiative from Hamas by firing “unauthorised” rockets from within Gaza.
Defiantly, a senior Salafist in Gaza recently stated: 'We will continue the jihad, regardless of the stance of Egypt or Hamas,' adding that the Majlis has 'precise knowledge on the complete cooperation between Egypt and Hamas in the war against the Salafists.' In a similar vein, the Majlis recently released a statement calling for the release of all Salafist detainees held prisoner by the Hamas government.
Salafist pressure within Gaza to enforce Islamic law more rigidly seems to have some effect on Hamas policy – one example is the recent move to institute gender segregation in Gaza schools. Yet in the eyes of the Salafist militants, these Islamization moves are merely cosmetic, do not compensate for imprisoning and torturing Salafist brethren, and so cannot alter the Majlis efforts to recruit public opinion within Gaza against Hamas and in favour of its own proactive stance towards Israel.
As David Barnett reports in the Longwarjournal, tensions between Hamas and the Salafi jihadists in the Gaza Strip are on the increase, especially since April 30, 2013, when Hithem Ziad Ibrahim Masshal, a well known jihadist, was targeted by Israel and killed. On May 1 a jihadist media unit suggested that Masshal had been set up by elements within Hamas, echoing a Facebook posting claiming that Masshal had been offered by Hamas to Israel "on a golden platter".
On the same day as Masshal's death, the Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat reported that members of Hamas's al Qassam Brigades had been "deployed in the border areas of the Gaza Strip replacing policemen with the aim of preventing the firing of rockets from Gaza." A report in Al Ayyam stated that Hamas has warned Salafi jihadist groups in the Gaza Strip that those who fire rockets will be arrested and that the firing of rockets should not occur "without a general national consensus" on the issue.
The antagonism between Hamas and the jihadists within Gaza continued to rumble on. On May 2, Hamas's Interior Ministry announced the arrest of six Salafists, four of whom were accused of stealing rockets from other terror groups in the Gaza Strip. The jihadist media unit repudiated the charge, and said that those detained had been arrested only because of their beliefs.
More recently Salafi jihadists in the Gaza Strip have been complaining about the Hamas-run Field Control Force, which has increased deployment in the Gaza Strip to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. According to Al Ayyam, the Field Control Force "has managed to foil many attempts to fire rockets over the past two weeks."
To bring the story of fraternal strife more or less up to date, the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad Movement, reported on June 24 that Abu Al-Qassem, one of its leaders, had been shot and killed in Gaza by security officers of the Hamas-led Ministry of Interior. The Brigades said that, by killing Abu Al-Qassem, the security forces of Hamas “granted Israel a free service whether they intended to or not”, since Al-Qassem headed Israel’s assassination list. It added that it would not remain idle while “certain groups” are attacking it, trying to confiscate its weapons, or trying to prevent it from defending Palestine and its people. Accordingly, its reaction to Al-Qassem’s assassination was to suspend contacts with the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
The Hamas interior ministry said Al-Qassem had opened fire on police, prompting them to respond, while Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein said: "I hope everyone will await the results of the commission of inquiry which has begun its work."
Meanwhile Gaza jihadists continue to defy the Hamas administration. On June 24 six rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel, two of which were launched towards Ashkelon and were successfully intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Israel, which holds Hamas responsible for what happens inside Gaza, responded with airstrikes against four military targets in central and south Gaza.
Since Hamas gets all the pain, and none of the gain, from these jihadist initiatives, it is no wonder that Hamas is exerting every effort to prevent “unauthorised” rocket attacks against Israel, and is cracking down hard on ultra-extremist groups which are opposed tooth and nail to its policies. Hamas, bidding for widespread Palestinian popular approval, has a snarling dog yapping at its heels.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 June 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 June 2013: