One of the more farcical claims popularized about the Palestinians and their war has been the notion of “moderate Hamas.” These claims have ranged from presenting Hamas as unpleasant but essentially pragmatic to Hamas as the good-willed would-be partners for peace. All of that, however, may soon become irrelevant. For as much as Hamas is very clearly anything but moderate, for many living in Gaza it appears that Hamas just isn’t extreme enough. From among a number of tiny Salafi and Islamist splinter groups that have engaged in periodic freelance rocket fire into Israeli civilian areas, Islamic Jihad is now emerging as a potential rival to Hamas’s authority in the Gaza strip. And with the backing of Iran, this small militant faction could begin to challenge Gaza’s current Islamist rulers and their hold on power.
In the past the alliance between Hamas and Iran appeared unbreakable, despite the fact that Hamas is a Sunni group and the Iranians are of course Shia. The uprisings in the Arab world destabilized this arrangement. Hamas had long had its headquarters in Damascus, but when Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime began butchering its mostly Sunni population, and with the backing of Shia Iran at that, suddenly this relationship was called into doubt. Yet, much to Hamas’s good fortune, these events coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt. With Hamas itself essentially existing as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, this must have come as welcome news for Ismail Haniyeh and his government in Gaza. However, with the subsequent removal of their Egyptian allies and benefactors from power in July of last year, Hamas in Gaza has been left underfunded and isolated.
While the prospect of Hamas’s decline might in itself be something to be welcomed, it is impossible to ignore that Hamas’s loss increasingly appears to be Islamic Jihad’s gain; which is after all a faction arguably even more potent that Hamas. With Iran stepping up its support for Islamic Jihad the group is now reported to have access to far more advanced weapons than was previously the case and in addition it is claimed that this faction can muster a militia some 5,000 men strong. An indication of the possible shift in the balance of power was evident in the recent barrage of rockets that struck communities in southern Israel last month. This attack was not launched by Hamas but rather by Islamic Jihad fighters, and whereas previously in such instances the Egyptian government mediated between Hamas and Israel, this time Egypt was mediating on behalf of Islamic jihad, with Hamas being consigned to the sidelines.
This is a reminder that the improvement in Islamic Jihad’s fortunes has not simply been a matter of Iranian patronage, but rather this has also hinged on growing public support. Far more hardline than even Hamas, Islamic Jihad has shown a willingness to step up attacks on Israel while Hamas appears to be mostly observing the ceasefire—although Hamas’s grip on the strip is still such that it would not be possible for these smaller Islamist factions to keep up their rocket fire without at least the tacit consent of Haniyeh’s government. This shift in allegiances among Gaza’s residents should serve as a reminder that what wins hearts and minds among the Palestinians are clear demonstrations of aggression against Israel. This of course flies in the face of the claim that Palestinians simply voted for Hamas as a rejection of Fatah corruption, as if they were otherwise innocently unaware of Hamas’s genocidal position on extinguishing the Jewish state.
As has often been observed, Islamism and statecraft hardly go hand in hand. Presumably Hamas is discovering that the practical day-to-day matters of governing do not exactly lend themselves to keeping up a level of purist militancy that plays out well on the Gazan street. While Hamas still managed to bring out large numbers for a recent “loyalty” rally, attendance was significantly down from what had been expected, and that is taking into account that many of those present were there under obligation, with Hamas still serving as one of the primary employers in Gaza. As such, Hamas maintains a fighting force some 20,000 men strong.
No one should imagine that Hamas has gone soft. The unconvincing suggestion that Hamas somehow deserves rehabilitating on account of its offer of a ten-year truce in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines really fails to stand. Not only should no one trust Hamas to even keep to such a truce, but what kind of “peace” agreement sees one side pledge to pause its war on the other in return for the territory from which to ultimately continue that war more successfully? Nevertheless, the all-consuming task of holding onto power in Gaza has periodically distracted Hamas from its war on Israel. That has weakened the group’s standing in the eyes of many Gazans and Islamic Jihad, with its Iranian backers, has only been too pleased to welcome in Hamas’s disaffected supporters.