Hopefully, the current Gaza ceasefire will stick and a diplomatic resolution to this latest crisis—albeit not the overall conflict—will replace the fighting of the past few weeks between Israel and Hamas. So far, each painstakingly negotiated ceasefire collapsed just about as soon as it was set to begin, leading to intensified fighting with little end in sight. With rockets flying, few people tried looking beyond the conflict to what could come next. And among the few who did, some feared that Hamas could be replaced by something far worse: A Salafi-jihadi statelet à la the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
That position gained strength when U.S. Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at a forum in Aspen, "If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse ... A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there … something like ISIS."
The good news is, he’s wrong.
Eventually, a ceasefire will stick and Hamas will find itself in a tough spot. Already bankrupt and lacking regional allies other than Iran, Hamas will have a hard time rearming Gaza even if efforts to demilitarize the impoverished Strip fall short. And Hamas’s standing in Gaza was already low before it initiated the current round of fighting. Consider, for example, that even before the current crisis a credible survey found that 88 percent of Gazans polled agreed with the statement, "The [Palestinian Authority] should send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over administration there."
That, indeed, appears to be the goal of just about all actors other than Hamas. And while the PA could not roll back into the Gaza Strip on the back of an Israeli halftrack, diplomats are already searching for a crafty mechanism under which the PA could return to Gaza, assume responsibility for governance and security, and oversee a massive international reconstruction effort.
It is not the case that if Hamas were destroyed (which is itself unlikely, since it is a movement that involves more than just its terrorist and militia elements), or severely undermined, the result would be the kind of vacuum in which Salafi-jihadi groups could prosper. Unlike Hamas, these small militant groups do not have a broader and deeper infrastructure within Palestinian society.
In fact, the most significant Salafi-jihadist groups grew out of groups like Hamas. In 2009, Yoram Cohen, who would go on to become the director of Israeli's Shin Bet security service, reported that the then-best known Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza were Jaish al-Islam, led by powerful clan leader Mumtaz Dughmush (a longtime criminal who found radical Islam); Fatah al-Islam, run by Saliman Abu Lafi and Raffik Abu Aker; and Jaish al-Ummah, controlled by Ismail Hammed. "These leaders," he reported, "defected from other Palestinian rejectionist groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, regarding them as insufficiently aggressive in conducting terrorist attacks."
While it subsequently governed badly and lost much support, Hamas appealed to a significant percentage of the Palestinian electorate when it unseated the ruling Fatah party in 2006. Hamas would soon take over the Gaza Strip by force of arms, leading to a seven-year break between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As a militant spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas nevertheless had the civil society organs and political presence to at least make an attempt at governing. Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has become more than a movement; it is now part of the very fabric of Palestinian society.
In contrast, the extreme Salafi-jihadi groups in the Gaza Strip exist at the fringes of Palestinian society. They will find it far more difficult to seize power in the first place, much less govern if in power. These groups—from Ansar Beit al Maqdas to Jaish al-Islam and host of smaller groups—lack the grassroots political, charitable and social services that are the backbone of Hamas. While the same cannot be said for Gaza's small Salafi-jihadi groups, Hamas comprises much more than just its terrorist cells and militia units. From sports leagues and summer camps to orphanages and medical clinics, Hamas runs extensive "dawa" (proselytization) programs which provide cradle-to-grave services for its supporters.
Gazan Salafi-jihadis tend to do no such things. More concerned with violent methods of establishing a transnational Islamic state, they have neither the resources nor the inclination to set up soup kitchens. As Salafists, they reject Hamas' attachment to a nationalist—albeit jihadi—cause. Ideology aside, these groups—which are not unified—lack the numbers of Hamas members and supporters. Consider that one of Hamas’ most publicized dilemmas in the past few months was its inability to pay its 40,000 public servants; individual Salafi-jihadi groups typically have no more than a few dozen militants. In fact, several outfits share overlapping memberships. Others exist in name only. True, some 30 Salafi-jihadi militants are reported to have gone to fight in Syria. And, in the past few years, a small number of radicalized Palestinians have begun joining Salafi-jihadi groups with an eye more toward aligning with al-Qaeda and its global jihad, rather than as Palestinian nationalists. But none of this has gelled into any movement of significance, militating against any of these radical organizations being able to replace Hamas.
In fact, in a January report, an Israeli think tank assessed that Hamas was tacitly encouraging Salafi-jihadis to depart for Syria, speculating that, “Hamas wants to ‘export’ potential opponents to external conflict zones,” in addition to its antipathy for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The report also noted that the Gazan fighters tended to be young operatives who were “persecuted by the Hamas security forces.” Indeed, as the governing force in the Gaza Strip, until the current conflict, Hamas largely prevented Gaza's Salafi-jihadis and other extremist groups from launching rockets at Israel at will. Hamas anti-rocket units kept a short leash on belligerents such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the motley crew of Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza. Today, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority share a common interest in controlling Salafi-jihadists and other extremists in Gaza in order to secure their dominant places of power in the Gaza Strip and secure the kind of massive reconstruction Gaza so desperately needs.
Such objectives are anathema to Salafi-jihadis, for whom the only goal worth pursuing is militant jihad at all times and at any cost. This puts a fairly small nucleus of Salafi-jihadist extremists at odds with the interests of the most Gazans. Few Gazans advocate for the type of “caliphate” like the one ISIS is pursuing in Syria and Iraq today.
Indeed, Hamas has consciously focused its efforts on creating a Palestinian state that is Islamist in nature, not a transnational caliphate, much to the chagrin of al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since 2006, Hamas has struggled to balance its jihadist identity and commitment to violent resistance with the need to govern and establish control. As a result, some ideologically extreme and militant Hamas operatives broke with the group and joined Salafi-jihadi outfits that espoused “pure resistance,” created shadow groups—like Jaljalat ("rolling thunder") that they could run in the evenings even as they continued working for Hamas, or even went to Syria.
However this crisis ends, it will be with Hamas no longer in power—and no longer constrained militarily by the burdens of governance. Hamas is likely to emerge less powerful in terms of arms and funds, but more militant and less restrained. This too militates against the growth of Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza. Indeed, some are likely to reintegrate into Hamas.
Hamas has suffered defeats before, and agreed to ceasefires that motivated Salafi-jihadis to continue attacks against Israel. And while current events are sure to infuriate Salafi-jihadis once more, and inspire them to carry out attacks and try to use recent suffering to recruit more members, they will not have the wherewithal to present a threat anything like ISIS in Syria and Iraq. There, ISIS blossomed in a political vacuum amid deep, sectarian, societal ruptures. These do not exist in Gaza. So long as Gaza is not left as a festering wound and a political vacuum, there is no reason for hysterical predictions of an Islamic State in Gaza.
To the contrary, if the diplomats get this one right, the tragedy of the past few weeks could allow for the reunification of Palestinian society—both the West Bank and Gaza Strip—under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. That could lead to a deal in which massive reconstruction would flow to Gaza so long as Hamas and other groups are prevented from rearming there (like Hezbollah did after the July 1996 war). In the longer term, it would also improve conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by reunifying Palestinian society under a moderate leadership at a time when Hamas is severely weakened.
Dr. Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.