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ANALYSIS: Gazans react to IS threat to take over Strip

Hamas has full control on the ground, and there are no signs of public support for 'extremist Islamic thinking' in the coastal enclave
Palestinians walk past a propaganda poster of the Palestinian Hamas movement on 5 March 2014 on a square of Gaza City, in the Gaza Strip (AFP)

The Egypt-Gaza border witnessed massive blasts since early on Wednesday, as a battle takes place between Egyptian troops and Islamic State members who are trying to take control of Sheikh Zuweid city in Sinai.

This explosion of violence coincides with the release of a video on Tuesday by Islamic State (IS) insurgents that threatened to turn Gaza into another of their Middle East fiefdoms. Hamas has been accused by IS of being lax about religious enforcement, according to a video statement from members of the group.  

Over the past few months, Hamas has battled with Salafist groups who are believed to be supportive of the Islamic State ideology and who reject the idea of a ceasefire with Israel and any reconciliation between Hamas and the US-backed Fatah. 

The latest video statement is seen as IS's first direct public challenge to Hamas, and also to Israel. An Islamic State member appeared with a message addressed to “the tyrants of Hamas” stating “We will uproot the state of the Jews and you and Fatah, and all of the secularists are nothing and you will be over-run by our creeping multitudes.”

The video vows that life in Gaza will become similar to that of Yarmouk camp, referring to the Islamic State's seizure in April of large parts of the Damascus district founded by Palestinian refugees.

IS has made sweeping advances into parts of Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and launched high-profile attacks in Tunisia. However, it is unclear how the members of Islamic State could infiltrate into Gaza when tunnels have been closed and the Rafah crossing remains mostly shut. A de facto Hamas security source told Middle East Eye: “Gaza is under full control.”

As IS members continue fighting the Egyptian security forces in Sinai, this correspondent could hear the massive bombings on the other side of the Gaza border. Hamas authorities have sent troops to patrol the Gaza border with Egypt following the threats from IS against Hamas and Gaza.  

However, the public are worried about this latest video statement, in which the IS member warns the people of Gaza: “I swear to God we will do the same as we did in Yarmouk Camp, we will repeat this in Gaza again, we will turn Gaza to shreds, and blood.”

The concerns among Gazans are mounting - however, Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, Gaza-based analyst of Islamic parties, told MEE that IS is stretched to its fullest capacity.

“Islamic State has gone as far as it can, and it seems it will not be able to achieve anything except killing and vowing to kill,” he said to MEE.

Dozens of IS members from Gaza have managed to travel over the years, via tunnels, to Egypt then on to Syria to join Islamic State. But the group itself is not organised in the Strip, despite the fact that no one can deny the mindset of Islamic State is present among desperate young people who can find no way to express their plight and frustrations. But Hamas does not appear to be giving them the chance to grow in Gaza.

“I was expecting that Islamic State would be smarter than this and more able to develop, especially when it had the opportunity to do so, but instead, it chooses to stand still and remain in narrow circles of understanding and behaviours,” adds Al-Madhoun.

Al-Madhoun expects IS to remain in the territories it is currently operating in - and not expand inside Gaza, for several reasons, including that Hamas remains in tight control.

“Hamas is stronger than IS, and have full control on the ground, and there is no environment to support their extremist Islamic thinking.”

Last month, the Palestinian Ministry of Interior announced the killing of an activist inspired by Islamic State thinking, 27-year-old Younies Al-Hanr, while he was at home.

The IS video statement attracted criticism from young Gazans - some mocking it, but many fearing it.

Reem Saadallah, a 24-year-old graduate, says she watched the video statement, and is shocked by the “terrible violence” she heard.

“Oh Islamic State, that’s all we need now to make life more miserable,” she said. In this case, she expects people to support Hamas more than before, in order to crush IS.

“We don’t need such madmen among us - I will support Hamas to get rid of them,” she said, adding that she disagrees with Islamists and could never see Islamic rule as a good model of governance.

“If I had to choose between Islamic State or Hamas, I would go for Hamas; at least there is a common ground for national interest here,” she said.

Yet those willing to discuss Islamic State with media are very few, as they fear retaliations from extremist groups.

Al-Madhoun says the behaviour of the IS members in the video is due to “personal and psychological hatred by those members who fled Gaza after they did not find an encouraging environment to grow, due to Hamas control”.

After the airing of the video statement, there is growing anger in Gaza against IS among average Gazans - not only that, says Al Madhoun, but there is little sympathy left for IS.

“Hamas members in Gaza have started to lose sympathy for Islamic State, and the latest statement could indeed be used as a justification by Hamas to start preventive measures, which may lead to killing members of IS.”

However, Dr Ahmed Yousef, Hamas leader and one-time senior advisor to former prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, advocates a dialogue with all spectrums of Islamist thinking, including the supporters of IS in Gaza.

Dr Yousef recently completed a study, titled “Hamas and Salafist Movement in the Gaza Strip: Visions and Common Work,” which is due to be released next week.

He told MEE that “we need to argue with them that they were mistaken in all that they do in Syria, Iraq and Sinai.

“They must know that what they are doing is damaging the image of Islam across the world and demonising all Muslims by stigmatising them with radicalism and extremism. Such actions only serve the Zionist interest in the Middle East.”